Go veggie, go!

We all know that the kids stereotype is that children will not ‘eat their greens’ whilst the reality is that most children will in fact enjoy several familiar vegetables, but would you have the nerve – or the capability – to make your school restaurant completely vegetarian?

In the USA, the country’s (perhaps) first ever all vegetarian menu served in a public school has been officially recognised in Queens, New York.

The Active Learning Elementary School serves more than 400 primary children – from nursery age to third grade – with breakfast and lunch every day. They had gradually been reducing the number of meat-based meals they were providing, serving a vegetarian lunch initially three and then four days a week; but from January this year they switched to 100% vegetarian.

Principal Robert Groff who co-founded the school in 2008 said, “The founding of our school was based on health and nutrition and teaching kids how to make healthy choices in the belief that they would be more successful academically and in their life.”



Now a typical menu will include vegetarian chilli, falafel with cucumber salad, a tofu (roasted in sesame sauce) wrap with plantains, or a black bean and cheese quesadilla served with salsa and roast potatoes. On Fridays the children still get to eat a (vegetarian) pizza.

The move came about partly because the school has about 70% Indian and Asian students. Groff said, “We started to watch the kids. One, what they would bring in to school, and two, what they would gravitate towards in the cafeteria.” Observing a higher number of vegetarian choices, the school partnered with the not-for-profit organisation New York Coalition for Healthy School Food to help them make the change, assisted by the fact that the school’s head cook is also vegetarian.

All the meals meet the same mandatory USDA protein requirements as a meat dish would.

Echoing research done by the Children’s Food Trust, the executive director of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food – Amie Hamlin – said, “We know that when students eat a healthy diet, they’re able to focus better. Their immune systems are stronger, so they’re sick less, and then they’re in school more and they’re able to focus and concentrate better, and therefore learn better.”

Most parents have apparently received the changes well, and for those who are less keen Groff encourages them to send their own lunches in. The kids themselves all seem to really enjoy the food, which may be interesting for many school chefs to note.

As mum to a daughter who doesn’t eat meat (we eat fish but not meat) I am frequently perplexed by the options she has for her school meal, and nonplussed by the way she is often treated by the system, and I am far from convinced that the vegetarian dishes she is given have enough (if any) protein in them. So this story is especially interesting to me. Do you think your school would ever be able to serve an all vegetarian menu – even for just a week?

Japanese Lessons

School Food in Japan – Homemade, healthy and social.

The Washington Post had a great little photo feature this weekend (Saturday 26th January 2013) about school meals in Japan that’s really worth a look.

The report visited the Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo and reports that school meals for children there are much the same as their parents – and even their grandparents – were eating for the past 40 years.

Screen grab from the Washington Post - please take the time to look at all their photos.

Screen grab from the Washington Post – please take the time to look at all their photos.

Mostly the meals are prepared daily from scratch in the school kitchen. In the Umejima school a team of 12 begin work on the lunch at 8.00am and by midday they have lunch ready for the 760 pupils. The lunch is well balanced and there is plenty of it. The children typically get a plate of rice, a bowl of vegetables and a broth or soup. There is not generally so much meat but often plenty of fish or tofu and loads of vegetables. The children also get a carton of milk, and in the pictures a satsuma.

This balance makes the meals very affordable to produce. The report claims much of the food is grown locally and that the provenance of the meat is always known. The ingredients are almost always fresh – rarely frozen.

Aside from these practical issues of the food, there are several other really striking differences about the way the Japanese children have their lunch. For starters, at regular intervals in the year a nutritionist gives them a lesson about their food right before their lunch so they understand a balanced diet. “If you finish your lunch you’ll be eating 21 ingredients,” she tells them.

Secondly the children themselves serve the food to their peers. They take it in turns to wear the lunch overalls and then they serve their classmates. The food is not gobbled the instant the child takes their seat, but they wait politely until the others sat at their table join them. And then, guess what, the children clear their plates. The report says that they are encouraged to eat all their food, but in the UK or the US – even with encouragement – how many children will eat all their lunch every day? And finally, at the end of lunch, the children clear and stack their empty plates and bowls and wheel them back to the kitchen for the staff to wash.

I love the social aspect of all this. It’s something I wish they would focus more on in British and American dining halls. It’s so important. In class the children rarely get the chance to chat, and in the playground the dynamic is active and therefore different. But the simplicity of sitting and eating together and just being able to chat and learn more about your friends, and laugh together and share concerns is just so valuable.

I also love the basic manners of waiting for everyone to join the table before eating, and of the simple giving and taking, service and gratitude elements of the children themselves serving the food, and not relying on adults to, well, spoon-feed them, or to take that responsibility and self-sufficiency away from them. The adults guide them on serving size. The children usually eat in their classrooms without the clamour of a large hall.

They’re not allowed to bring food from home, unless they have special dietary requirements – at least until secondary (or high) school. And there are no vending machines. Meanwhile childhood obesity has shrunk over the last six years since the Japanese government grew their dietary education programme. Looking at the global picture Japanese children are set to have longer lifespans than children in any other country, and they have one of the lowest childhood obesity levels in the world. There is also no malnutrition from poverty, although there are some problems of eating disorders and some underweight children. But most schools employ a nutritionist who not only teaches nutrition but also works with individuals who have less healthy diets or are fussy eaters.

The nutritionist is also responsible for designing the daily menus and dishes. For UK and US caterers finding ways to work within the regulation of nutritional guidelines, they may be interested to know that whilst there are broad government guidelines in Japan, there is no regulation. There are no calorie controls. Schools are permitted the freedom to do their own thing and whilst local authorities have the ability to step in if a school were serving unhealthy food, they’ve not so far needed to do that.

Schools don’t serve low fat food. Pudding is only ever fruit or yoghurt. There is almost no fried food, and when there is it’s served in tiny amounts. And, partly because the children eat all their food, they’ve reduced food waste to an impressively minute 5%.

The school principal reports that parents often phone in requesting the recipes for the restaurant standard food the school serves, and in fact the district produces a cook book detailing the best meals they produce. The children draw pictures of their favourite dishes and produce. On their website the school lists the provenance of the ingredients. The recipes change with seasonality.

There are historic post-war reasons why the Japanese have focussed on healthy eating, which you can read more about in the Washington Post feature, but it is clearly paying off. More recently – perhaps to combat an influx of more Westernised High Street or mall foods, there has been a new Delicious School Lunch scheme running for the past five years to help get the kids more interested in their food. The cost to parents is about £1.50 or $3 per meal, which covers the cost of the ingredients. Labour costs are covered by the local authority. There are free and cheaper payment options for low waged families.

But perhaps the main difference is that the Japanese model has achieved something that many school caterers and others interested in school food have started to push for at least in the UK. And that is that the school meal has become a part of their curriculum. In a quote in the feature Masahiro Oji who is a government director of school health education says, “Japan’s standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education not a break from it.”

Something the western school systems could undoubtedly learn from.

Relaunching School Food World AND the inaugural International School Meals Day

School Food World had a bit of stumbling start last year, but we’re re-launching with the hopes of doing a better job of living up to our aims of reporting, promoting, and celebrating best practice in schools catering around the world.

So with our first post of 2013 and marking our relaunch we have the honour of announcing that the inaugural International School Meals Day will take place on March 8th this year.

Many in the catering and school meals industry will be familiar with School Meals Week. In the UK and the US School Meals Week celebrates the many different aspects and benefits of school meals for children in those respective countries. In the UK, the last School Meals Week was an even greater success than previous years with more schools than ever taking part. It also saw the release of this report on the views of parents and the nutritional standards, particularly in respect of Academies being excused from adhering to the standards.

It was hoped originally to link School Meal Week in the UK with the one in the U.S. but differing term times and holiday periods has made that difficult. So instead people on both sides of the pond have set about establishing an International School Meals Day which will hope to highlight and celebrate the importance of school meals all around the world.

The inaugural day and the concept paper behind it is the result of an evolving UK and US relationship centred on practice and policy about promoting healthy eating in schools. For two years caterers and other interested parties on both sides of the Atlantic have been sharing examples through workshops, conferences and study visits to improve best practice in both countries. They also share similar challenges

The aim of International School Meals Day (#ISMD2013) is to focus and publicise the efforts, expertise and successes of both groups, but also allow other caterers around the world to participate and share their own.

The aims of the Day are:

  • To highlight the value of nutrition in school meals around the world and to encourage those involved with school food service to improve the quality and standards of school food.


  • To emphasise the connection between healthy eating and better learning, and to promote the integration of nutrition education into schools’ curricula.


  • To connect children around the world via different media platforms and encourage healthy eating habits and promote wellbeing in schools as a valuable way of life to pass on to future generations.


  • To share school meal programme success stories from across the globe so that others may learn and replicate best practice.


  • To promote and support research activities in school meals programmes to demonstrate their impact on child wellbeing.


  • To raise awareness of hunger and poverty issues worldwide and particularly in developing countries which are being addressed through school feeding programmes, and to highlight successes and those who need support.


Of course individual countries and organisations will have different ideas for how they wish to celebrate International School Meals Day but the organisers have some ideas on how people can join in and support the aims of the day. For instance:

  • Twinning of schools via international education links
  • Have an international menu day
  • Hold fundraising activities to support school feeding programmes in developing countries
  • Add food and global citizenship to the curriculum that day
  • Run cooking activities with an international theme
  • Go mad on social media to highlight innovation in your school
  • Publish your research to coincide with the day
  • Promote your efforts to the media

What other suggestions do you have for celebrating International School Meals Day? Will you get involved?

School Food World aims to support and publicise the first International School Meals Day, so if you plan on getting involved and you’d like to share your activities do contact us via Twitter @SchoolFoodWorld, on Facebook, or email us via info@schoolfoodworld.co.uk.

Best practice and innovation in school food around the world