My son starts kindergarten next week and along with meeting new teachers, making new friends and learning new routines, he faces something else new: seeing people eat animals every day.

Portland is known for its progressive politics, yet the city’s schools (like most public schools in Maine) don’t offer vegan hot lunches. This puts them out of step with the heightened environmental awareness of our times and the plant-based generation populating our schools.

At home, my son and I talk about how people from different cultures eat different types of animals, and he’s seen meat-eating at restaurants and parties. Yet he’s never watched children eat ground-up animal flesh each school day or seen friends drink a daily carton of cow’s milk.

Actually, I don’t think he’s ever seen anyone drink straight-up cow’s milk.

Back when I wrote about his days as a surprisingly giant vegan baby, he lived in a bubble of homemade vegan meals and plant-based delights sourced near our home in downtown Portland. Now he’s entering a public school where the breakfast and lunch menus are underwritten by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At my son’s private preschool in the West End, the snacks were always vegan and the children brought their own lunches. Not all the lunches were vegetarian, but no one was eating chicken nuggets, beef burgers, beef teriyaki dippers, chicken patties, beef burritos or beef taco boats.

All are on the September lunch menu for Portland elementary schools.

I admit, I’m surprised by all this meat. All this beef. All the cartons of cow’s milk. I didn’t expect it here in Portland in 2018, when there’s plenty of vegan food on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves.

During the past five years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time at play dates, birthday parties and children’s events, and I’ve been delighted to discover the veg-positive vibe in this hidden world, where fruits, vegetables, beans and nutbutters dominate the menu. Dairy-based foods are common in this world, too, but meat is not. Beef is nonexistent.

I worry about peer pressure and what happens when your classmates eat meaty school lunches day after day. Let’s be honest: It normalizes eating animals.

Take heart, my schoolteacher friends tell me, the effect will be offset by all the lunch meat that ends up in the trash.

The numbers tell a story, too.

In its central kitchen off Riverside Street, Portland makes approximately 3,500 hot lunches each school day. It’s enough to feed half of the students in the district, according to food service director Jane McLucas. This means the other half either bring lunch from home, buy it at a nearby restaurant (the high schools allow students to leave campus during lunch), or go without.

At the same time, 53 percent of students in Portland qualify for free and reduced price lunch.

I asked McLucas whether the students eating hot lunch and the students who qualify for free lunch are one and the same. She said the district is investigating the question, but she couldn’t provide an answer by press time.

Superintendent Xavier Botana has said more than 40 percent of Portland students identify as people of color. That’s approximately 3,000 students. People with European ancestry usually digest cow’s milk with relative ease, but much research, including one Cornell University study, has found that up to 75 percent of people with African ancestry and 90 percent of people with Asian ancestry experience the pain and unpleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance when they eat dairy products.

All of this leaves me with many unanswered questions.

Could the lack of vegan options be reducing the number of students ordering hot lunch? Would some of the students who qualify for free lunch prefer a plant-based meal? Might thousands of Portland students be lactose-intolerant? Should a progressive city serve its diverse student body meals centered on meat and dairy?

One question we know the answer to is that reducing the amount of meat and dairy on the lunch menu would lower the city’s climate footprint. According to Friends of the Earth, the Oakland school district in California cut the carbon footprint of its lunch program by 14 percent after reducing animal products on its menus by a third and replacing them with plant-based proteins.

Other than the sunbutter and jelly sandwich offered every day, my son’s elementary school sells no vegan meals. None. The Morningstar veggie burger contains egg and the hummus and pita tray includes cow’s milk cheese.

The school serves a free vegetarian breakfast every day to all the kids. On the days they serve yogurt, cheese sticks or cream cheese, I’ll be able to send in vegan versions for my son and store them in the nurse’s refrigerator.

Instead of cow’s milk, my son will get soy milk, thanks to a signed Milk Substitution Request form submitted to the food service director. The U.S. Department of Agriculture okayed soy milk for the national school lunch program in 2008, but not all districts stock it. Those that don’t may offer lactose-free cow’s milk to kids who are allergic. Even in districts like Portland that stock soy milk, students aren’t offered a choice between cow’s milk and soy milk. Only those with a requested and signed form can get a soy milk.

Here in Maine, the Portland schools are leaders in offering meat-free meals. A daily vegetarian entree was added to the menu at Longfellow Elementary School in 2001, and by 2011 all schools in the district that serve lunch were serving a daily vegetarian option. It’s time for this evolution to continue with an expansion of the district’s vegan options at all of the district’s schools.

The simplest steps Portland could take to become more plant-based would be to substitute a vegan veggie burger for the current vegetarian one and replace the cheese on the hummus plate with falafel, sunbutter, tofu or another plant-based protein approved by the USDA for use in school lunches.

Another way forward comes from other school districts around the country that have added vegan hot lunches and found that students really like them.

In Los Angeles, the school district was surprised when the vegan hot lunch options sold out during testing last year in select schools. Another surprise: most of the students eating the vegan meals weren’t vegan or vegetarian. Now the vegan teriyaki burgers, vegan tamales, vegan burritos and falafels with flatbread are being rolled out to all the LA schools.

The Florida district of Miami-Dade County has attracted a lot of press in the last few weeks for the vegan chili with cilantro and chipotle brown rice that will be available at all 392 schools in the district. Closer to home, an elementary school in Queens, New York, took meat off the menu in 2013 and has since seen its attendance improve.

I hope Portland will soon join this leading-edge group of schools. Vegan meals would benefit Portland students, the district’s lunch program and the city’s climate action plan. It’s 2018 and time the city offered vegan hot lunch.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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