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Oakland Unified School District celebrated for Meatless Mondays

on October 7, 2014

Elementary students stand in line at Oakland’s Stonehurst Campus Kitchen, facing a critical question that will define the next thirty minutes of their lives: burger or chicken salad?

While most students choose hamburgers as today’s lunch, they make their decision knowing something a casual observer might miss. These burgers are meatless, soy-based patties served on two fresh buns, with an optional slice of American cheese. And that chicken salad? Seasoned cubes of chicken-free soy.

Stonehurst’s Food Service Manager, Sylvia Fong, shakes her head. Although not surprised by their decisions, Fong prods the students. “Try the chicken!” she pleads. Fong and her staff have put in extra work on the salad. Properly cooking the soy cubes with the right mix of mayonnaise, celery, parsley and garlic power has not proved easy. Today, Fong happens to think they’ve gotten the dish right.

“If you try it,” Fong tells one boy, “you’ll like it!”

After a quick glance at his options, the boy goes with the burger. Clarification: he goes with the veggie-burger.

Fong and her students take part in “Meatless Monday,” Oakland’s four-year old version of the international movement created by the U.S. government as a resource-saving measure during World War I. Adopted by the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in 2010, Meatless Monday encourages people to eat meatless meals one day a week—as a benefit to their health, school officials say. The program currently exists in OUSD’s elementary schools and child care centers.

“We share it with our students, and hope it gets brought home as well,” says Jennifer LeBarre, OUSD’s Director of Child Nutrition Services. “So it helps change the perception of what whole meals are, and how we don’t have to obtain animal protein every time we eat.”

Those efforts also improve our planet, says Kristie Middleton, Food Policy Manager of the Humane Society. “Eating meat-free helps reduce the number of animals suffering on factory farms and reduces our carbon footprint,” Middleton says.

Fong tends to focus on the nutritional aspect of Meatless Monday as she prepares lunch at Stonehurst. “We have overweight kids, and these meals help them to be healthy,” Fong says. “We want them to eat more vegetables. At home, I think kids often eat just meat or fast-food.”

OUSD’s website supports Fong’s claim, stating that half of OUSD students are “overweight/obese” and two-thirds of the students don’t “meet fitness standards.”

Middleton says OUSD’s Meatless Monday efforts can help reduce both obsesity and chronic diseases. “It’s exciting to see students recognizing the challenges being faced by the community and taking part in programs like this as a fun way to address this epidemic,” says Middleton.

OUSD provides roughly 40,000 meals a day, and Fong and her staff serve nearly 650 students at Stonehurst. The school offers a daily salad bar so students have the option to eat and experiment with different vegetables they might not find at home.

As the program has evolved over the years, LeBarre says, finding creative ways to avoid leaning heavily on cheese has come with challenges. “We don’t want to advocate that the only option on Meatless Mondays is a grilled cheese or a quesadilla,” she says. “And then you have the layer where a student is lactose intolerant or cheese is not part of their culture.”

OUSD’s Farm-To-School Coordinator, Alexandra Emmott elaborates on the Oakland “culture” reference. “Oakland is a very diverse place, and certainly Oakland schools are incredibly diverse, “ she says. “It’s great for our kids to see some of their cultural heritage reflected in school food, and that’s one of the exciting parts about the recipe development of Meatless Monday.”

In the process, Emmott has watched the students and staff warm up to ingredients like tofu. “I would say it was a harder sell for our staff than it was for our students sometimes, when we were starting,“ says Emmott. “Using something like kale or even squash–some folks might not ever have had it or cooked it before.”

That learning curve for staff and students is intended to lead to better, life-long dietary decisions, says Amy Glodde, OUSD’s Menu Planner. “We see kindergarteners walking into school with a 20-ounce bottle of soda and a bag of Cheetos they got at the gas station across the street,” Glodde says. “Our meal might be their only meal of the day, and it might be their most nutritious meal of the day.”

As a result of OUSD’s culinary work, LeBarre’s staff recently received some good news. One of their dishes was selected as a finalist for the Humane Society’s Meatless Monday recipe contest. The contest highlights K-12 schools, nation-wide, and the judging was based on the following criteria: “Taste: 60%, Ease of preparation and ease of use in schools: 30%, Visual appeal of the finished dish: 10%.”

“I’m really excited,” says LeBarre. “Number one, of course, is the recognition, and then recognizing all of the work our people are doing.”

The recipe selected? Yakisoba Noodles with Stir Fried Tofu and Bok Choy. When asked for her personal opinion of the recipe, LeBarre answers, “Oh, I love it.” Then she pauses. “I’m not even a tofu fan,” she says, “but I love this dish.

“We’ve even had students say, ‘We could eat this forever!’” LeBarre adds. “That’s something unique when we’re talking about school lunches, but for a recipe to have tofu and bok choy and get that kind of reaction is doubly unique.”

Back at Stonehurst, the lunch rush has slowed as students finish their meals and begin clearing their plates in preparation for recess. Although non-hamburgers have won out over today’s non-chicken salad, Fong doesn’t give up.

She grabs plastic forks and a large bowl of the salad. Walking from table to table, she encourages students to try a bite.

One student takes Fong up on her challenge. After a cautious taste, the girl’s eyes light up. “Wow,” she says. “It’s good.”

OUSD’s finalist selection and other Meatless Monday winning recipes can be found here.

For more information on Meatless Monday, click here. 

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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