Roasted chickpeas with basil pesto served alongside butternut squash ravioli in an alfredo sauce accompanied by a green salad sounds like an elaborate meal, but for the students at P.S. 343, the Peck Slip School, it's simply lunch on a Thursday.
In the fall of 2013, Peck Slip became the second New York City public school, following P.S. 244Q in Queens, to institute an all-vegetarian lunch menu.
“Once I heard about the school in Flushing choosing the all-vegetarian lunch option, I wanted to go that route, too,” the school's principal, Maggie Siena, said. Two years ago, Siena, with guidance from The Coalition for Healthy School Food, sent an email to the parents informing them of the change. It would begin in that fall. Siena said the response from parents was “overwhelmingly positive.”
“Of course you can never please everyone, parent or child,” she said. “Even at the 'fanciest' restaurant, there will be complaints.”
Siena traces the transition to the fall of 2012, when she was given a children's book by one of the school's teachers, which Siena shared with her then 8- and 11-year-old children. Reading that “animals are earthlings, too” struck a chord with Siena and her family. “My daughter asked if we could 'go vegetarian' for two weeks ... . And we never went back.”
The school's menu varies daily, and can include empanadas, hummus, quesadillas, lentil chili, vegan meatballs, curried tofu and, of course, the extremely popular pizza party each Friday. Every day features an “eat your colors” vegetable or legume. Examples abound: braised collard greens, black beans, chickpeas, kale and roasted cauliflower. Fruit features, too.
Peck Slip, though, is not a “meat-free” school: Some students can, and do, bring their own lunch.
Still, Siena notes that the kung pao tofu with lo mein and butternut squash raviolis are favorites. And while the pizza, always topped with a vegetable, seemed to be the consensus favorite, some students even said they enjoyed the salads.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Daryl, 8, clad in a New York Giants jersey, spoke of his love of the plantains served the day before. And, he added, “the tofu is really good ... better than I had in pre-K.” His buddy, Jack, 7, in a New York Yankees hoodie agreed: “This is the first time I've ever liked tofu.”
Jayden, also 7, though, was partial to the ever-popular grilled cheese sandwich.
The Coalition for Healthy School Food was a critical component of transitions to vegetarian lunches, first at P.S. 244Q and then at Peck Slip. Founded over 10 years ago, the coalition has helped schools switch to vegetarian or alternative menus and to wean lunches from beef, pork and processed foods such as chicken nuggets or mozzarella sticks.
The coalition's executive director, Amie Hamlin, said two of the programs also provide nutrition education: “Family Dinner Night” is a plant-based meal served to parents, teachers, and administrators, as well as students, and the evening includes hands on learning activities and a cooking demo; and the Food on Earth curriculum is a yearlong, weekly 45-minute class for fourth- and fifth-graders that includes food-preparation and nutritional education.
The coalition has a limited number of slots for the fall semester, and interested schools can get in touch at healthyschoolfood.org.
Siena's school has been temporarily housed on Chambers Street at the former Tweed Courthouse, where the Department of Education also resides, but will be moving this September to its new permanent space at 1 Peck Slip St., by the South Street Seaport. It's taking its vegetarian menu along.
“The hope is that repeat exposure to some less familiar foods will lead more students, to love and appreciate them,” Siena said.