An array of current vegan hot lunch options on a food service preparation table at Central Kitchen. Portland Public Schools switched the vegetarian menu items in elementary schools' hot lunch program to vegan ones this year. Elementary school lunches are prepared at Central Kitchen serves roughly 2,200 students daily. Credit: Nick Schroeder

PORTLAND, Maine — Gone are the days when school lunch meant mystery-meat burgers and square-cut pizzas with cold, congealed cheese. At least for Portland kids.

This school year, Portland Public Schools unveiled new vegan lunch options at elementary schools — a rotating menu of falafel and brown rice, roasted carrot “hot dogs” and lentil-based sloppy Joes alongside its traditional meat-based fare. The vegan program replaces a vegetarian option that had been in place since 2011.

On Friday, hours before students got their first taste of vegan Mediterranean pizza — a dish of hummus, red peppers, black olives, carrots and cucumbers on a flatbread — Central Kitchen Food Service Director Jane McLucas declared the first week of the program a success.

Credit: Nick Schroeder

“The falafel was a huge hit,” she said.

Roughly 55 percent of students in the Portland district opt for their school’s hot lunch program in a typical year. The vegan offering aims to increase that number.

The district’s Central Kitchen provides meals for 10 elementary schools across Portland, and provides hot lunches for about 2,200 elementary students per day. McLucas estimates that about 200 of those opt for the vegan meal.

The cost of a vegan lunch for students is $2.70, the same price as the meat option.

Credit: Nick Schroeder

Cultural diversity was a factor in the decision to launch vegan lunch, according to McLucas, who said the district wants to accommodate the dietary needs of its growing Muslim student population. Many of those students observe cultural and religious practices that prohibit them from eating meat that is not halal. She said other students can sometimes have difficulty digesting dairy products.

McLucas said the plant-based options are not designed to “mimic” traditional meat-based items, but the vegan Mediterranean pizza is offered on days when the traditional cheese-and-pepperoni dish is served. Similarly, a roasted carrot-in-a-bun will be offered in lieu of the hot dog option, and a Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burger — composed of carrots, peas, broccoli, onion and spinach — will be served as an alternative to the beef patty.

Credit: Nick Schroeder

To conduct taste tests for the vegan options, Portland Public Schools coordinated with Cultivating Community, a local organization that works to provide access and education toward local and sustainable agriculture and food systems in Southern Maine. The move also affords the school system an opportunity to work with local farmers. According to Central Kitchen cook Lori Beatham, the marinara for the chili mac is locally sourced, as are the roasted carrots for the vegan hot dogs.

McLucas said that she considered feedback from parents of area students to design the vegan menu, which has become a nationwide trend in recent years. She looked at national programs as well, including those at schools in Los Angeles. Vegan lunches also are offered in public schools in Kittery and Falmouth.

The food service director said that the move observed environmental concerns as well. Diets that include a high volume of meat and dairy are among the factors that fuel climate change, according to a report from 107 scientists in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The vegan option is only available in elementary schools for now, but a similar program is being considered for Portland’s middle and high schools in the coming school years.