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Vegetarian school seeks diverse menu

1:28 PM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER (EDNEWS COLORADO) - Gianna Cassetta cringed as she peeked at the lunch the kindergartner brought from home and pulled from his sack onto the lunchroom table at SOAR, a Denver charter school: a Lunchable packaged meal, Cheez-it crackers, a granola bar and Capri Sun juice drink.

"Families don't always make the most nutritious choices," said Cassetta, SOAR's head of school. "We don't beat families up for sending a granola bar to school. We won't take it away and throw it in the trash. But we may ask a child to take it home and have a piece of fruit instead. And then we'll have a conversation with the parents to clarify."

At other tables, most youngsters were tucking into the meals provided in the school lunch line - picnic pasta salad with veggies and whole grain goldfish crackers or pasta marinara with beans and carrots. Dessert was grapes or apples. The beverage was a choice of 1% or fat-free skim milk.

No meat. No sodas. Nothing sugary. Only minimally processed foods. Organic or locally-produced ingredients whenever possible. Nothing fried. No artificial preservatives, colors, flavors or sweeteners.

Trying to change children's eating habits early

As Colorado's only all-vegetarian school, SOAR is attempting to raise up a generation of healthy eaters.

The year-old charter school is one of more than 60 Colorado schools to contract with Revolution Foods to provide healthy, organic school lunches to students.

But it's the only school to insist that the lunches be all "plant-based," a term school officials have found less anxiety-creating among parents than is "vegetarian."

Cost for lunch at SOAR is $3.02 - more than twice the average cost for a meal in most DPS schools. About 80 percent of the school's students opt for the school-provided meal each day.

Parents who want to pack their child's lunch always have the option of including meat for the meal. But they won't find meat or junk food for sale at school, and the school is pretty strict about the twice-daily snacks the kids are allowed: just whole fruits or vegetables.

"Nobody is sneaking in candy bars, but sometimes kids do bring in foods that are not part of our policy," Cassetta said. "Parents get confused. But most are very supportive. A few are 'Oh my God, what will life be like without meat at lunch?' It's a process. But we work with you, and with encouragement and time, kids can become really good eaters."

The unique nutrition program at SOAR, a charter school located at the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus in Green Valley Ranch, stems from earlier experiences Cassetta and her husband, Marc Waxman, had in launching a new school in Harlem 12 years ago.

"Our thinking was, if we wanted to do this right, we had to pay attention to what the kids ate, because so much of what they ate was unhealthy," Cassetta said.

In New York, the owner of a vegan restaurant donated the services of one of her chefs two days a week to help provide healthier menus to the students, many of whom suffered from obesity, diabetes and asthma.

Plant-based foods to improve children's health

"When we started SOAR, we wanted to apply all the lessons we had learned in New York right from the start," Cassetta said. "There is tons of research about plant-based foods preventing disease. We know the kids will still eat meat at home. We know there will still be unhealthy eating. But in small pockets, we're making a difference in the way people think about food. Hopefully by the time our kids are in fifth grade, they'll be very conscious about what they eat."

Seventy percent of SOAR's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because they live in poverty or near-poverty. So for many, it's a matter of educating their families about making smart food choices with limited resources. The school's nutrition committee, headed by registered dietitian Cathy Schmelter, has done a lot to provide parents with the information they need.

"In the winter, it was hard for parents to find good fresh fruits and vegetables for their children's snacks," Schmelter said. "It was just a lot of apples and carrots, and the kids got bored with it. So one night we had a demonstration that most of the parents came to. We served a lot of different snacks they might not have thought about. We had blood oranges, edamame, bananas with cocoa and coconut, just different ideas. The parents loved it."

Plans are in the works to offer cooking classes for parents. But the school has even more ambitious food education plans in mind.

Read about the SOAR program on EdNews Colorado.

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