- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

What does a kid have to do to get a decent veggie burger?
Lots, if it's lunchtime at school.
Whether they've been touched by "Babe," the talking pig, or grossed out by mad cow disease, a growing number of children are rejecting meat, school food service providers say. That's challenging schools to deliver more vegetarian fare along with sloppy Joes, hot dogs and chicken fingers.
Parents of vegetarians say most schools, which have long relied on inexpensive, tried-and-true menus, often do a poor job feeding their children.
Recent surveys show that about 2 percent of children under age 18 consider themselves vegetarians, about the same percentage as adults. With nearly 50 million children attending public schools, that means 1 million vegetarian children lining up for lunch each day.
Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian in Amherst, Mass., said as many as one-third of the first- and fourth-graders in her children's classrooms said they were vegetarians recently.
She and others said traumatic scenes in the movies "Babe" and "Chicken Run" have converted many young children to vegetarianism. Meanwhile, older children are emulating celebrities who go meatless.
"They say, 'That's cool. I think I'll try it,'" Miss Mangels said.
Schools in many areas have responded by adding salad bars as well as more fruits, vegetables and meatless entrees, said Marcia Smith, president of the American School Food Service Association.
"We're definitely seeing an increase in vegetarian menus," said Miss Smith, who runs the food service program for Polk County, Fla., public schools.
Over the past five years, most schools have begun serving a vegetarian item every day, she said. Schools must also accommodate children who don't eat meat for religious reasons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national school lunch program, is experimenting with vegetables items.
But vegetarian advocates, many of whom are parents of young vegetarians, say most schools don't consider serving non-meat entrees unless they are assisted — or pestered — by parents.
Schools that do often offer cholesterol-laden items such as grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, deep-fried cheese sticks and pizza, parents say.
"If you talk to anybody out there in the real world, in vegetarian families, the kids are having trouble finding something to eat," said Suzanne Havala, a Chapel Hill, N.C., nutritionist and author of "Vegetarian Cooking for Dummies."
In recent years, the federal government actually has made it easier for schools to offer meatless options such as soy burgers or other meat replacements, allowing schools to calculate meal ingredients by nutrients. But most prefer to stick to a more traditional system that builds menus by measuring servings of meat, vegetables, fruits and milk. That system doesn't allow meat substitutions such as tofu, Miss Havala said.
"The reality is that most schools still find it easier and more convenient to serve lots of meat," she said.
Most nutritionists say young children need at least some meat in their diets, saying it is difficult for many parents to provide nutritious, low-fat vegetarian meals. Venerated child care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock, who became a vegetarian late in life, surprised colleagues in 1998 when he recommended, shortly before his death, that children be raised as "vegans," rejecting even milk and eggs.
Heather Reyes, 9, a fourth-grader in Yuma, Ariz., said she became a vegetarian at age 4, after seeing "Babe," in which the hero's mother is packed off to the slaughterhouse.
These days, Heather brings lunch to school. When she buys, she picks the meat out of cafeteria hoagies, wishing she could get one of those meatless Boca Burgers or even a slice of meatless pizza.
"The problem is, sometimes if there's pepperoni pizza, I have to pick through and mutilate it," she said.
Her mother, Linda Reyes, said Heather looks forward to Fridays in springtime, when cafeteria workers in the heavily Catholic community serve nothing but meatless meals.
"She lives for Lent," Mrs. Reyes said.
Rodney Taylor, director of food and nutrition services for the Santa Monica-Malibu, Calif., Unified School District, has featured a "farmer's market salad bar" and vegetarian pasta dishes for years. He is experimenting with other vegetarian entrees, but said many school districts simply can't afford them.
"Invariably they're great items, but they're out of our price range," he said.
Mr. Taylor said a standard veggie burger on a bun costs 81 cents — 49 cents more than a hamburger. That's a lot when a school budgets for $1 per student.
He predicted, nonetheless, that schools will find a way to serve more vegetarian fare.
"As kids become more aware of the need to eat healthier and the demand is greater, you'll see healthier items," he said. "But pizza and hot dogs will always be there, long after you and I leave this earth."

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