At first, Allen was “excited” about Vegan Fridays but found the reaction from her classroom was mixed with some students saying the broccoli and spinach were overcooked. Even though city Department of Education officials insist students taste-tested the new menus, Allen said it feels like they didn’t include “the kid in the whole deal” and never consulted teachers like her.
The nation’s largest school system launched the initiative earlier this month, following a handful of other districts across the country that offer vegan fare. Adams, a devotee of a plant-based diet who occasionally eats fish, has been touting the option as a way to encourage students and their families to eat healthier.
But teachers, pupils and elected officials said in interviews that Vegan Fridays haven’t been a hit so far since there’s been no improvement in the overall food quality in lunchrooms. Critics say they are concerned about whether students will continue to get the nutrients they need during the day given that a number of students are not eating the food. They also questioned whether the DOE is putting enough resources behind the unfunded endeavor to make it appealing to kids’ palates.
“They only made the food worse,” Federico Nunez, a junior at Pan American International High School in Queens and a student government representative, said in an interview.
“Student government tried to change the food of the Friday and everyday food because the food is so bad,” he said.
While there’s no more “strange meat” on Vegan Fridays, according to Nunez, it’s now salad that appears soggy. “We should remove the Vegan Fridays because [of] the [number] of students hate that,” Nunez said.
Gilsson Martinez Rosario, a senior at Pan American International High School and another member of the student government, said his classmates weren’t asked about their thoughts on Vegan Fridays.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that good.” Martinez Rosario said he’s not against vegan food, but he wants his school to provide more food options for lunch. According to Martinez Rosario, more than half of students wouldn’t eat the food provided to them on Fridays.
The school’s student government plans on sending out a survey to learn what teens want for lunch. They’re also going to address the issue with the school’s cafeteria manager.
“I just want food from the street like fries, hamburgers, pizza,” Martinez Rosario said.
Vegan Fridays is the latest in a series of steps New York City has taken to provide students with more plant-based options. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Meatless Mondays in 2019 and Meatless Fridays in April 2021. But Adams, who wrote a book about his largely vegan diet and credits his nutritional choices with reversing a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, launched Vegan Fridays claiming kids were clamoring for more greens from their school cafeterias.
“Our children are weighing in,” Adams, a Democrat, said earlier this month when the initiative started. “They’re doing food testing. They’re determining the type of food that they want that’s healthy and we want to give them the options. And I’m hoping they take it home to their family members.”
New York City isn’t the only U.S. school system giving students vegan lunches. School districts in New Bedford, Mass.; Lee County, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Boulder Valley, Colo. began offering vegan-friendly lunches, according to Friends of the Earth — a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The MUSE School in Calabasas, Calif. was reportedly the first to serve an all-vegan lunch to students in 2015.
There has been increased interest in veggie-heavy diets since the 1980s but the movement has particularly taken off in the last decade or so, according to Josh Cullimore, director of preventive medicine for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
“Plant-based meals are the future so I really applaud the New York mayor for taking this step,” Cullimore said. “This movement will grow and grow. Covid has shown the importance of looking after your health.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarians and vegans are at a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other health problems. One-quarter of children have high levels of cholesterol due to poor diets.
Since only 7 percent of children eat the recommended amounts of fruits and only 2 percent eat the recommended amounts of vegetables, Cullimore said students would benefit from going on a plant-based diet.
Supporters have also pointed out the advantages for the environment and overall cost savings from plant-based diets.
Every pound of beef consumed in the U.S. produces 27 pounds of greenhouse gases compared to just 2 pounds of greenhouses gases for every 2 pounds of dry beans, according to a 2016 study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
But a California bill that would have funded such a statewide program died in the state Senate over its $3 million price tag.
So far New York City officials haven’t put a price tag on Vegan Fridays.
When asked whether the DOE is investing money into the initiative, an agency spokesperson said it features plant-based options made from existing inventory on Fridays by using fresh vegetables and fruits that were already available.
Allen, the Brooklyn kindergarten teacher, urged the DOE to consider working with nongovernmental organizations or other entities to get more money for the initiative.
“I’m guessing that funding is an issue here cause they’re opting for cheap stuff,” Allen added. “There’s plenty of money if they want to allocate it to really do something about food… there’s probably gonna be many beans and chickpeas but I hope there’s some variety.”
Ann Cooper, founder and president of the board of the Chef Ann Foundation, which supports school food professionals to serve healthy foods nationwide, worked in school food operations for 22 years in Berkeley and Boulder. She said the problems with New York’s are reflective of broader challenges inherent in the shift from traditional school lunches to more nutritious meals.
“When you make significant menu changes for whatever reason, you need time to do recipe development and you need time to educate the kids and do tasting and make sure the parents and the community are moving along with you as you make change,” she said.
While she argued animal husbandry is part of sustainable agriculture, she acknowledged the overall health and environmental benefits of vegan meals.
“Certainly when we look at the environment, when we look at climate change and when we look at our health, those are really big reasons to reduce the animal protection in our diet,” Cooper said.
A spokesperson for the NYC school system said cooks at each school sought feedback from students daily and involved the youngsters in regular menu meetings with kitchen managers citywide. They also referred to surveys that sought feedback from the field for their last three plant-based menus. Non-vegan options are still available Friday, as are meatless meals every day of the week.
“The health and wellness of our students is a top priority for this administration, and having a nourishing and filling meal each day is essential in ensuring students can succeed both inside and outside the classroom,” the DOE spokesperson, Jenna Lyle, said in a statement. “All products on our menus, including our plant-based food options, were taste tested and approved by students, and we constantly engage students when updates are made to our menus.”
Monthly vegan menus are available on the DOE’s website with offerings like vegan veggie tacos served with crispy or soft tortillas and a salsa cup and seasoned broccoli. Unlike vegetarians who just eschew meat and seafood, vegans also forgo eggs, dairy and other animal byproducts.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who represents District 13 in Queens — which includes neighborhoods like Corona, Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst — echoed student and teacher concerns about the quality of NYC’s program.
She recently shared a photo on social media of a Vegan Friday meal that consisted of a pack of baked Tostitos tortilla chips, pre-sliced apples and a small medley of zucchini, mushrooms and corn.
“I am as much a believer in the power of healthy food as you, but this ain’t it,” Ramos tweeted on Feb. 4. “This was served to a public school student #Seenin13 for Vegan Fridays. The only real meal some of our city’s kids can count on is what they get @ school. This wasn’t thought through.”
On a recent Friday, DOE reps invited Ramos to P.S. 143 in Corona when Schools Chancellor David Banks was scheduled to visit.
The food was “pretty good that day” and looked “great for the cameras,” she told POLITICO. The meal consisted of black beans and rice with vegetables and fried sweet plantains.
But students at the school told her the grub was not as good on previous days. She urged city officials to ensure that students receive high-quality food all the time — not just when the chancellor stops by.
“That day was an improvement to the previous two weeks, according to the children that were there,” Ramos said. Although most of the kids tried the beans or the rice, many didn’t have more than a few bites. “I also noticed that most of the kids didn’t eat the food,” Ramos said.
She spoke to Banks about the initiative, encouraging his agency to team up with upstate farms to bring locally-sourced food to the Vegan Fridays program. She also recommended that the DOE work with the state Department of Agriculture.
She expressed cautious optimism about the improvement in food.
“I’m thankful that they showed me improvements to the lunch,” Ramos added. “I hope that’s true on Friday when we are not there as well.”