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Acai bowl, anyone? E. Ramapo school district adds Meatless Monday

Bean Tortilla Bowl

Article by Kimberly Redmond, lohud, May 29, 2018

 

Lunch trays in school cafeterias have certainly come a long way.

 

Within the last decade, a shift towards menus with more healthy, organic offerings has occurred.

 

And longtime lunchroom staples, like a slice of greasy pizza or Sloppy Joes heaped on spongy white buns, are nowhere to be found. Students instead load their trays with veggie burgers, freshly rolled sushi and organic yogurt parfaits.

 

As chief operating officer of Whitsons Culinary Group, a food supplier to more than 95 public school districts in the Northeast, Kelly Friend knows this, of course.

 

Over the last 10 years, the Long Island-based company has stripped monosodium glutamate (MSG) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its menus and built its cafeteria cuisine around locally sourced, organic items.

 

Still, Friend admits she was slightly taken aback when she heard a 7-year-old request avocado toast and when a group of students asked when
Acai berry bowls would be served again. Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) are purple, grape-like berries packed with antioxidants and other nutrients that grow on palm trees in South America. They are a popular ingredient in smoothies, juices and purees.

 

“It’s refreshing,” said Friend. “Children younger and younger are asking for more untraditional foods…they are looking for more sophisticated entrées and ingredients and vegetarian items.”

 

The demand is being driven by an increasingly health-conscious society, better eating habits at home and tighter school meal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to industry research.

 

In 2010, federal guidelines were passed that called for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; less sodium, fat and sugar, and adherence to calorie limits as a way to trim childhood obesity rates, combat rising levels of youth diabetes and curb other health issues stemming from poor diets.

 

To take it a step further, Whitsons kicked off an initiative earlier this month at the schools it serves, which include the East Ramapo district.

 

As of May 7, cafeteria menus are largely meat-free on Mondays, in an effort to encourage kids to cut out meat from their diet one day a week to improve their health and help the environment.

 

The option of meat on Mondays is not being eliminated, however. Whitsons is just making sure its cafeterias feature a “student-friendly, vegetarian option,” according to Friend. For instance, instead of a hamburger, students would be encouraged to try a veggie burger or black bean burger, she said.

 

While vegetarian entrees have always been an option, Whitsons' “Meatless Mondays” initiative strives to promote and increase the availability of them in response to feedback from students and parents, Friend said.

 

For the effort, Whitsons partnered with the Meatless Monday campaign, an international movement that has made its way into many organizations, companies, hospitals, schools and colleges across the country.

 

While Whitsons does not have feedback just yet from how the menu is faring with East Ramapo students, Friend is confident kids will love it.

 

Based on her experiences in other districts, Friend is certain dishes such as organic tacos — with an array of fresh fixings— and Acai berry bowls will be a hit.

 

Also among the meatless options coming to East Ramapo’s cafeteria are organic bean and cheese burritos, Middle Eastern veggie burgers and eggplant and basil calzones.

 

Whitsons, the district’s food supplier for more than a decade, serves over 3,000 breakfasts and 7,000 lunches each school day in East Ramapo.

 

East Ramapo schools would not grant a request by the Journal News/lohud to visit during lunchtime.

 

‘Meatless Mondays:’ What to know

 

  • Whitsons rolled out Meatless Mondays to its schools after seeing the success it had among employees at its corporate headquarters cafeteria, according to Friend.
  • During the last year, Whitsons surveyed students on their tastes and then puts its chefs to work on experimenting with meat-free items.
  • The Meatless Mondays movement is a public health initiative from The Monday Campaigns, a nonprofit associated with The Lerner Centers for Public Health Promotion at Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Syracuse universities. It was founded on research showing Monday is the day people are most willing to start and stick with a new behavior.
  • Many school districts around the country have embraced Meatless Monday in recent years. In 2009, a school district in Baltimore, Maryland, was the first in the country to adopt the initiative.
  • Several schools in New York City are meatless. Last fall, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the arrival of Meatless Mondays in more than a dozen public schools, he also announced that he and his family would also embrace the campaign at Gracie Mansion.
  • The movement has received some pushback. For instance, in 2014, Texas' former agriculture commissioner Todd Staples criticized schools that adopted Meatless Monday policies, saying that restricting meal choices is irresponsible and is part of a "carefully orchestrated campaign that seeks to eliminate meat from Americans' diets seven days a week — starting with Mondays." In 2015, a group of college students in Nebraska, the nation's top commercial red meat producing state, decried an attempt to get their cafeteria to do a meat-free day.
  • Consumers are increasingly ditching meat. Vegan orders increased 19 percent in 2017, according to an analysis done by GrubHub. And meat substitutes were ordered 5 percent more on Mondays than the rest of the week. Plant-based food, such as cheeses, yogurts and ice creams, are up 8.1 percent over the last year, according to Nielsen, and topped $3.1 billion in sales.
  • Meatless Monday isn’t a new idea. During World War I, the U.S. Food Administration urged Americans to reduce consumption of key staples to help the war effort. Along with Meatless Mondays, the government also encouraged people to participate in Wheatless Wednesdays.