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Flushing school serves up city’s first all-veggie menu

City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott digs for cucumbers, his favorite vegetable, at PS 244 in Flushing. Photo by Steve Mosco
TimesLedger Newspapers

Mixed greens and chickpeas replaced miscellaneous chicken parts on the menu as children at a Flushing elementary school welcomed a special guest to share a healthy lunch.

City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott joined third-graders at PS 244, the Active Learning Elementary School, at 137-20 Franklin Ave., in the cafeteria Tuesday to celebrate the city’s first all-vegetarian school menu. Some even claim it’s the first in the country.

“It is great to see a school instilling healthy eating habits in children at such an early age,” said Walcott. “By eliminating sugary sodas and juices and by not frying food, we are helping our children succeed academically and physically.”

Partnering with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, PS 244 expanded its vegetarian menu to five days a week. The menu now reads like a fine dining restaurant rather than a school cafeteria, with healthy recipes like roasted chickpeas, braised black beans with plantains, tofu vegetable wraps with cucumber salad, vegetarian chili with brown rice, falafel and roasted tofu with Asian sesame sauce.

The school, which opened in 2008, began offering a vegetarian lunch three times a week and then increased it to four times per week. Robert Groff, the school’s principal, said demand was so high that officials decided to make it a daily meal program.

“We discovered early on that our kids were gravitating toward our vegetarian offerings and we kept expanding the program to meet the demand,” said Groff, one of the school’s founders. “The vegetarian menu fits right in with our mission and we are thrilled that our students in pre-kindergarten all the way up to Grade 3 understand the importance of healthy and nutritious meals.”

And officials at the school, including cafeteria staff, can already see a marked difference in the children’s attitude since implementing vegetarian meals when the school opened.

Groff credits an inventive team in the school’s kitchen for coming up with lunch options that are both healthy and tasty.

Irma Gianna, who started as a kitchen manager at the school and has since been promoted to a regional training manager responsible for instructing cafeteria employees throughout Queens, said she knows firsthand that healthy food makes a healthy brain.

“The kids pay more attention and they have more energy,” she said. “It is not bad energy like from sugar. It keeps their brain alert and they are able to do better in class.”

Officials said they believe other schools will see what PS 244 has done and implement their own healthy lunch options.

“We are sure that with time and understanding of the powerful impact of whole foods and plant-based nutrition on disease prevention and learning, that PS 244 will be the first of many schools to adopt a vegetarian menu,” said Amie Hamlin, executive director of the Coalition for Healthy School Food.

As he sat down to enjoy lunch with the children, Walcott revealed a healthy secret to their eager ears.

“I haven’t had ice cream in 25 years,” he said. “I don’t even remember what it tastes like.”

The children shook off that shocking revelation and returned their focus to servings of black bean cheddar quesadillas and red roasted potatoes.

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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