Queens elementary school PS 244 — also known as the Active Learning Elementary School — made headlines in 2013 for being the nation's first public school to go completely vegetarian.
Robert Groff, the school’s principal, co-founded PS 244 in 2008 on the idea that health and wellness are inextricably linked to academic performance. A few years ago, the school decided to stop serving chocolate milk, suggested at first by a third grader who was learning about nutrition labels. Then, after other menu changes that emphasized healthy eating, PS 244 became the test kitchen for the entire city.
Instead of sloppy joes, they served veggie meatballs. They introduced a salad bar. And by January 2013, with the help of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food and NYC’s Office of School Food, PS 244 had a full, meat-free breakfast and lunch menu — surprisingly, at no added cost compared to the city’s meal program.
The question is: How is the school doing now?
Fast Company investigated, and apparently, it's thriving. According to Groff, almost 80% of the school’s 440 students eat the vegetarian school lunch. Students can bring meat from home if they wish, but not candy, soda, or chips. He said that kids are even asking their parents to buy more broccoli at home.
Though only based on anecdote rather than concrete data, the school says it has been seeing improved academic performance since introducing this menu. And teachers say that the kids have been more attentive in the afternoon.
PS 244 is an extreme example of the movement to serve more plant-based menu items at schools across the country, spearheaded by Congress and Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity campaign. In 2012, the USDA set historic new rules requiring less sugar and a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in school meals.
But because of its extremity, PS 244 can't be an exact example for schools nationwide to follow. Some schools are already having trouble with the new USDA guidelines at it is, Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, told Fast Company.
Basically kids don't generally want a heaping portion of vegetables or brown rice. As a result, kids are more likely to throw out their food or opt out of the lunch program. In fact, schools nationwide are accruing more and more food waste, according to Pratt-Heavner. (Though this point is up for debate; a recent study published in Childhood Obesity directly contradicted this. Researchers found that students actually ate more fruit and threw away less of their entrees and vegetables after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's healthier school meal standards went into effect.)
But regardless of these differing viewpoints, it's undeniable that PS 244's success is exceptional. Their secret? Education, apparently.
"The vegetarian meals are what get the most attention, but that wouldn’t have happened without the education prior to it," Groff explained. "I think for any schools that are looking towards healthy meal options, you have to start with the education behind it."
So maybe, if food education could be incorporated better into schools' curriculum, and kids could understand how their actions impact both their bodies and the environment, they would be more open to trying new, greener things. In the meantime, we applaud this progressive elementary school for setting such a positive example for the rest of the country. If every school just took one page out of PS 244's book, then it made a difference.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock