Why you should care

Because a healthy lifestyle starts early. 

For some people, diet is doctrine. Elementary schools in France, which has the largest population of Jews in Western Europe and 5 million Muslims too, have a tradition of offering substitutes for school lunches that contain pork, since observant religious students have to abstain. Recently a court ruled that schools needn’t offer such alternatives, and that non-pork options amount to religious pandering in the schools.

But why do school lunches include meat at all?

Nope, we’re not veganazis. We’re just looking at the facts: Pound for pound, beef and lamb are the two most inefficient foods when balancing calories and carbon emissions, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. And while your meat gets more efficient when raised inhumanely, factory farms and the like create a new set of gory issues to grapple with. Yes, yes, humans should be free to eat what they want — again, we’re not pushing tempeh down anyone’s throat here — but exposure to plant-eating early on could train young taste buds in the art of eating food that never mooed. Besides: So long, mystery meat!

You’d think the idea would fail in the red-blooded U.S. of A., the land that birthed such innovations as the Triple Whopper and pizza with hot dogs wrapped in the crust. And indeed, there is resistance. “It would be tragic to withhold meat from growing children,” says Dannie Beer, president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. He adds that schools should be figuring out how to “increase children’s consumption of meat, not eliminate it.”

There were interesting USDA regulations on protein — tofu, for instance, must be cut into blocks instead of sprinkled or scooped.

Tell that to Robert Groff, principal of P.S. 244, in Queens, New York. A couple years back, P.S. 244 became the first public school in the U.S. to serve up daily vegetarian menus. The idea, says Groff, was inspired by the kids themselves — previously, they’d organized a campaign to ditch chocolate milk in the lunch line. Today it’s all tofu, roasted zucchini and vegetarian chili. Students can still eat meat for lunch, so long as they bring it from home — it’s a BYO bologna policy.

Notwithstanding the chocolate-milk movement, or the fact that P.S. 244 is a health- and nutrition-focused school, the shift wasn’t easy, says Groff. There were interesting USDA regulations on protein — tofu, for instance, must be cut into blocks instead of sprinkled or scooped — and some parents weren’t keen. Which is why Groff urges schools to make the shift to lentils slowly, and focus on educating parents and kids about meatless menus first. “It’s the healthiest option out in our system,” says Groff.

It’s true, carnivores: Studies show that veggie diets can decrease the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and can help with weight loss. Besides that? A meatless menu would also fulfill the requirements of most religious diets, so those who are worried about blasphemy over breakfast would have their minds set at ease. Unless, of course, you consider meat a religion.

Got beef with this idea? Tell us in the comments.

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