One New York City public school has switched to serving only vegetarian meals. This decision came after parental involvement and the popularity of vegetarian dishes with the children. While I don’t know many of the specifics of their diet, I applaud the school’s willingness to do something different, and to help improve the quality of the lunches at school. As I was thinking about it on a more personal level —  on a “What if this was my kid’s school?” level — I thought of a few things I would want to know.

Is the school serving fake meats?

The one meal example the principle of the school mentioned was black bean and cheddar quesadillas served with salsa and roasted potatoes. That is a lovely vegetarian meal. And I wouldn’t mind my children eating a dairy- and bean-based meal every day. But soy-based protein sources? Well, I am fine with small amounts of traditional (organic) soy products, like soy sauce, natto, tempeh and miso.

But fake meats made out of soy? Not so much. Soy consumption has been linked to a wide variety of health issues, and I would be concerned about my child downing a cup of soymilk and a soy hotdog at school on a regular basis.

So, I would definitely be asking about the use of soy-based meats.

Are the children served enough iron?

Granted, children should be getting nourishing meals at home as well. Unfortunately, many don’t, which is why there is so much focus is on a school lunch, since it may be the best meal some children eat all day. And this is why I would want to make sure that the kids at the school were being given plenty of iron-rich foods. The Mayo Clinic recommends for vegetarians: “Because iron isn't as easily absorbed from plant sources, the recommended intake of iron for vegetarians is almost double that recommended for nonvegetarians. To help your body absorb iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C, such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli, at the same time as you're eating iron-containing foods.”

Did you notice that the recommended intake for iron for vegetarians is almost double what is recommended for nonvegetarians? This is why it is crucial that children are served plenty of iron-rich choices when on a vegetarian diet.

Are they served enough vitamin B12 foods?

According to official government nutrition recommendations, “Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. Vitamin B12 is generally not present in plant foods.”  If the school’s vegetarian meals include dairy and eggs, then they will be getting a good source of vitamin B12. If many of the meals are vegan, or based on soy meat instead of dairy, there is a risk of not getting enough vitamin B12, which is a problem because vitamin B12 is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis. So vegetarian or not, we want to make sure that our children have plenty of it.

Have any other thoughts? How would you feel if your kid’s school went vegetarian?

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