PORTLAND, Maine — Nadia Grant is glad meatless meals are offered daily at Longfellow Elementary School.
The fifth-grader follows a vegetarian diet at home. She says her mother became a vegetarian as a teenager because she didn’t like the idea of animals being killed for food.
“I like not having meat on my tray for lunch,” Nadia says. “If they didn’t have meatless lunches, I’d probably bring my own.”
Nadia is one of an estimated 367,000 U.S. children who avoid eating meat, according to a December 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 1 in 200 people younger than 18.
The first-time government estimate is based on a 2007 study of alternative-medicine use in the general population. The data was gleaned from interviews with about 9,400 parents and other adults speaking on behalf of children.
In response to the demand, 52 percent of U.S. school districts now offer vegetarian meals, and 15 percent offer vegan meals, according to the School Nutrition Association.
Vegetarian diets may include milk products and eggs; vegan diets exclude all foods derived from animals.
Portland, Gorham and Scarborough schools are among the Maine districts that offer meatless food options.
With the growing interest in meatless meals, Ronald Adams, the new food services director in Portland schools, sees an opportunity to expand vegetarian offerings throughout the district and provide other more healthful cafeteria options. His goal is simple.
“If we make the food healthier and more appetizing, they’re more likely to eat it,” Adams said.
Longfellow School started offering daily meatless options eight years ago, when foods containing peanuts were banned from the school because several students had suffered allergic reactions.
“Longfellow was one of the first schools in the state to go peanut-free, in part because our students eat in their classrooms,” said Principal Dawn Carrigan. “We started offering meatless options as an alternative for vegetarian students who could no longer bring peanut butter sandwiches to school.”
Now, macaroni and cheese, vegetarian chili and cheese ravioli are offered once a week at Portland’s nine other elementary schools as well.
Because meals are prepared at a central kitchen and delivered hot to each elementary school, it’s difficult to offer meatless options every day at every school, Adams said. Still, that’s a goal he’s shooting for.
Within a year, Adams plans to start offering daily meatless options at all Portland elementary schools. Currently, 3,210 of the 14,500 meals served weekly in Portland schools are meatless, which is about 21 percent.
“With the expansion, the total should rise to 33 percent of meals,” Adams said.
Meatless options such as cheese pizza, salads, bagels and yogurt are offered daily at Portland’s three middle schools and three high schools, he said.
Carrigan said students avoid meat for a variety of reasons, including animal welfare. Not all of the students who choose meatless options are vegetarians, though.
“Some families are cautious about how much meat they eat,” she said. “The nutrition program at school also encourages students to make healthy choices. Sometimes it’s simply because they like the meatless option, especially if it’s macaroni and cheese.”
Adams, who has a bachelor’s degree in food science, said parents of vegetarian children must monitor their kids’ eating habits and health to ensure that they’re getting enough protein, vitamins, iron and calcium in their diets. Filling up on meatless foods that are high in fat and sugar, such as potato chips, french fries, doughnuts and soda, can cause weight gain and other health problems.
In addition to providing more meatless options in Portland schools, Adams plans to offer more meals made from scratch and with locally grown produce and seafood when it’s available and competitively priced.
As a spokesman for the state’s Maine Harvest Lunch Program, Adams helps farmers and school districts learn how they can work together to improve cafeteria offerings without straining school budgets. It’s a skill Adams learned as food services director in Gorham schools the past 10 years.
In Portland schools, Adams is offering one entree made from scratch each week. He’s developing a recipe for seafood chowder made with Maine shrimp that will serve 2,400. And the district’s bakers, who already make bread, rolls and pizza crust from scratch, soon will be making products with whole grains at least three times a week.
Making meals from scratch and with locally grown produce promotes Maine agriculture, improves cafeteria selections and gives Adams more control over fat, salt and other ingredients that can be high in prepared foods.
“It’s all about quality,” Adams said.