Give students a healthy choice

Syeda Z. Hamdani is a Sacramento writer

Josh and Ali stand in the lunch line at a public school. “I’m starving,” says Josh.

“Me, too,” answers Ali. “You know, Muslims only eat halal meat, slaughtered a certain way.”

“And vegetarians don’t eat any meat,” replies Josh, “so both of us don’t eat school lunches that have meat.” They smile. Then, they see no entrees except sloppy Joes.

“I can’t bring lunch from home because my parents can’t afford it,” says Ali.

“Same here. If we don’t eat meat, the cafeteria will give us peanut-butter sandwiches,” Josh says.

“Yuck! I already had two peanut-butter sandwiches this week,” Ali adds.

Adrian, another student, walks by, holding a sloppy Joe. “You guys can have sugary peaches and soggy salad. There are just three more hours of school anyhow,” Adrian says with a laugh.

Such scenarios were common in many public schools 20 years ago, and they continue to occur today, despite a sharp increase in the number of vegetarian and Muslim children.

Most of these children and millions of others eat lunch from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The department reimburses public schools for every free and purchased meal they serve.

This year, Congress is considering whether to renew or to make changes to the NSLP. One change should be to make vegetarian meals mandatory, along with meat entrees, in all public schools. Currently, with the exception of high schools, most public schools are biased against students who don’t eat meat. On half of the school days in Sacramento public schools, for example, no vegetable option is available.

As a result, lunches offered to vegetarian and Muslim students lack protein, a vital nutrient. Moreover, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) states that NSLP lunches focus on artery-clogging meat, rather than healthy vegetables.

Many parents share the PCRM’s concern about unhealthy lunches but haven’t voiced their opinions to Congress. But speaking out achieves results, as a few San Diego parents showed by lobbying California legislators to pass a nonbonding resolution advocating vegetarian meals.

More parental involvement will achieve greater results. If parents let Congress know that making vegetarian meals a part of the NSLP will enable all children to have healthy, complete lunches, then Congress can provide funding by increasing the reimbursement rates for all lunches. With these changes, school cafeterias can serve all students well.