Portland fifth-graders Kawther Ajeel and Minka Clayton attend East End Community School on Munjoy Hill and are cheering a recent decision by the Portland Public Schools to upgrade the lunch menu’s daily vegetarian “alternative” choice to a daily vegan hot lunch entree.

“I think it’s good,”Ajeel said. “It sounds better. Last week I didn’t eat any of the lunches because they had a lot of chicken and beef.”

Kawther Ajeel and Minka Clayton are Portland fifth-graders who have been asking for more and better hot lunch options at school for vegetarians. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Ajeel and Clayton wrote to Jane McLucas, Portland’s food service director, at the start of the academic year asking for improved vegetarian meals. “We wanted them to reduce the amount of meat they’re putting in the lunches,” Clayton said.

One of the most frequent vegetarian meals served in Portland is a bento box with a hardboiled egg, two cheese sticks and a handful of pretzels. Clayton said she doesn’t “think that’s a lunch” and Ajeel said it “doesn’t really fill people up.”

Amid such complaints, McLucas last month began the process of rewriting the menus and redoing her orders to add more vegetarian dishes, all of which will be vegan. Daily vegan hot lunches will start in September.

“We’ll roll it out first at elementary and see what the more popular items are, and then move them up” to the middle and high schools, said McLucas, whose team makes about 3,500 lunches every school day. Her department has suffered staff and budget cuts in recent years, making such changes more challenging.

Portland’s move to add daily vegan hot lunch comes at a time of heightened demand for plant-based food, due to its low-carbon footprint and lack of cholesterol. Major school districts across the country, such as Los Angeles and New York City, offer vegan hot lunch.

Maine districts, including Falmouth, Westbrook and Kittery, are also adding or expanding their vegan options.

Kung Pao tofu, orange tofu, Mediterranean hummus pizza and carrot hot dogs are among the vegan lunches being considered in Portland for the upcoming school year.

“We’re trying to search out a vegan burger at the moment,” McLucas said. “The pasta and vegetarian bean chili is a go and we’ll definitely do the lentils on Thursday. We might do a lentil sloppy Joe or the southwestern lentils.”

On burrito and taco days, the vegan choice will be the same but with beans and rice as a filling instead of beef. A number of the vegan recipes under consideration come from the Forward Food project, which helps schools, hospitals and other institutions add plant-based meals to their cafeterias. It is an initiative of the Humane Society of the United States.

OTHER DISTRICTS

The Washington D.C.-based Forward Food was in Kittery in November, offering its plant-based class to the district’s food service staff. Wendy Collins, nutrition director for the Kittery School District, said her staff learned recipes that allowed them to expand the hummus flavors they make for all the schools and to add vegan entrees at the town’s high school, Traip Academy.

“The high school has four or five vegan options every day,” Collins said. Choices include hummus veggie wraps, quesadillas with vegan cheese, veggie rice casserole and Szechuan noodles.

Collins said when the schools served Buffalo cauliflower for the first time, “we couldn’t cook enough.” Another runaway vegan hit is the “chocolate hummus with fresh strawberries and pita bread baked with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar, and cut into triangles.”

Mary Emerson took over as the director of school nutrition in Westbrook at the start of the school year, and already has heard from parents and students who want vegan options. Like McLucas in Portland, Emerson is planning to roll out vegan choices in September. To help her staff create plant-based dishes, Emerson is setting up a Forward Food training.

“For change to really happen and take place, I have to have my staff motivated and excited, too, and that’s why I’m excited about the training,” Emerson said.

In Falmouth, the food service director, Martha Poliquin, said vegan entrees include a bento box of sunbutter, carrots and flatbread at the elementary schools, and entrees such as falafel sandwiches and vegetable-quinoa stir fry at the high school.

One vegan-friendly feature in Falmouth is the ease of access to soy milk, which any Falmouth student can choose while going through the lunch line. In Portland, Westbrook and Kittery, students are only handed a soy milk if their parents filled out a form or submitted a doctor’s note.

While Poliquin in Falmouth is exploring plant-based meats and Collins in Kittery said the schools all use plant-based cheeses, McLucas in Portland would like to avoid plant-based meats and cheeses. Instead the district will test the trendy carrot hot dog, which is a steamed, marinated carrot, grilled and served in a hot dog bun.

“There no confusion and everybody knows it’s a carrot,” McLucas said.

Even so, students Ajeel and Clayton had never heard of carrot hot dogs and didn’t know if they’d like them. What do they hope to see on the new vegan menu?  Falafel, mashed potato bowls, and mac and cheese, they said.

BETTER FOOD FOR MORE KIDS

Since school started in September, I’ve talked and emailed with dozens of Portland parents unsatisfied with hot lunch, and more than 400 people signed an online petition I started asking the school to serve vegan meals every day. I’ve also spoken with teachers and administrators who wish the cafeterias offered a lunch option for them.

A concentration of parents and community members pushing for change in Portland’s school food can be found within the district’s Food Fuels Learning network. Parent representatives on the district’s Federal Nutrition Task Force have been urging the district to increase scratch-made dishes, decrease sugar and add more plant-based meals.

The task force’s goal is to boost the number of students taking hot lunch, since only half of Portland’s students opt for hot lunch on any given day. The other half packs a lunch, buys lunch from a sandwich shop or goes without.

Originally I assumed the 50 percent of students who take lunch represented the same 50 percent who qualify for free and reduced lunch. But I was wrong, since 32 percent of students who could get a free lunch don’t take it. Among those who would be required to pay the full price for hot lunch, 74 percent skip the cafeteria.

The parents serving on the task force say they applaud the addition of vegan hot lunch as a way to make the district’s food more equitable and appealing, but add that much remains to be done.

Stephanie Hogan, who has two children in the Portland schools and serves on the task force, is an advocate for a revamped menu where each dish is made from mostly plant-based whole foods, cooked by school staff and able to be topped with minimally processed meat or dairy. “Whole food nutrition is paramount to the growth and development of our children,” said Hogan, a teacher.

Kara Wilbur, a task force member and parent, is pushing for more whole grains and less sugar on the Portland menus, particularly for breakfast. Working with local chefs, Wilbur gathered plant-based overnight oats recipes and shared them with the district as a potential replacement for the breakfast bars on the current menu.

McLucas and her team have begun testing the overnight oats with favorable results. If a test in May generates more positive feedback, McLucas said overnight oats will be added to the breakfast menus in the fall, but she’s “not sure how often.”

Adam Burk, a Portland parent and task force member, has helped build successful farm-to-school programs in the Windham-Raymond and Lake Region school districts, and on the task force he’s advocated for the restoration of funding to buy more local foods and for the addition of more plant-based meals.

Portland schools now offer two vegan meals: the sunbutter and jelly sandwich (available every day in all the schools) and the vegetable bean chili (served on the elementary school menus once every 60 days).

“Currently no adult I have found will commit to eating the food we serve to students,” Burk said. “That is a red flag … We need more delicious, plant-based, whole food options.”

Like the vegan ones the district plans to debut in September.

Regular readers know I’m also one of the parents applauding the decision to add vegan hot lunch, since I wrote about the lack of it last August. I recently joined the Federal Nutrition Task Force and am learning about the complex realities of Portland’s food service operation.

This September we’ll learn how students respond to the new vegan choices. But based on what she sees in the cafeteria, Clayton predicts the dishes will be popular.

“If there’s an option for vegetarians, it will probably run out,” Clayton said. “A lot of people choose sunbutter and jelly, and it runs out.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 


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