Lunch at many public schools across New York City means chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks and mystery meat sandwiches. But at P.S. 244, The Active Learning Elementary School, in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, the menu sounds like this: Roasted Organic Tofu with Sweet Curry Sauce, Braised Black Beans with Plantains and Herbed Rice Pilaf, Chickpea Falafel with Creamy Tofu Dressing, Lettuce and Tomato and Loco Bread, and Mexican Bean Chili. In April, it became the first public school in the nation to become 100-percent vegetarian. But there’s more. To drink, there’s low-fat milk and water. No juice, no soda. And the salad bar looks like something from a very expensive day spa, not the 24-hour corner mart.
For Bob Groff, a co-founder and the principal of P.S. 244, and the man who turned his menu meatless, the need for better food was obvious. Kids were drinking neon sugary drinks, eating cheese puffs, losing focus and gaining weight. His students were not alone. Nationwide, one in three children and adolescents is obese or overweight, and childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. “There is a strong correlation between academic achievement and student health and nutrition,” said Groff. “I wanted to prove that better nutrition could make a difference to students’ lives.”
The road from processed nuggets to homemade sesame tofu was a long one. It began in 2008 when Groff, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Cornell and was a corps member of Teach For America, engaged a nonprofit called Fan 4 Kids to provide a health and nutrition class to grades kindergarten through three. “For the first couple of years, we felt like we needed to educate the kids about health and nutrition,” he says. The classes include learning about food groups, information on exercise and how to read nutrition labels.
Groff also created a school Wellness Counsel with staff, parents and kids, and offered parent workshops on nutrition as well. In one of the meetings, Groff says, a student asked a question that truly put the ball in motion for bigger change. “The student said, ‘chocolate milk has a lot of sugar — why are we drinking this?’” Groff remembers. “I realized that the kids had learned how to read nutrition labels. For us, that was the real starting point to changing the menu.”
To do so, Groff partnered with the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (NYCHSF), a nonprofit that works with the New York City Office of School Foods to introduce plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools.
After a few months of wrangling, chocolate milk was a thing of the past. Next, NYCHSF received approval to serve one vegetarian dish a week, and effectively turned P.S. 244 into the test kitchen for vegetarian dishes across the city. To involve the entire school community, Groff and the NYCHSF started hosting annual family dinners to show parents the kinds of foods they wanted to serve at the school. Some parents were suspicious about what was being served to their kids. But others came around. “I had one father come up to me and say, ‘I send my daughter to school with lunch every day, but now that I have tasted what you are serving I will never send her with lunch again,'” Groff remembers. Once kids started going home and requesting brown rice instead of white, and actually asking for broccoli, Groff knew those seeds of change had taken root. “You really see a transformation in the kids, because they are learning, and making changes at home,” Groff says.
By 2012, Groff and NYCHSF were able to bump up the vegetarian meals to three per week. Groff also created an annual Health and Wellness week with yoga, family Zumba, races and parent workshops on healthy eating. By April 2013, the entire menu was vegetarian, a first in the nation, and a model ripe for reproduction.
Looking back on the journey, Groff says it was important to ramp up slowly and to start with education so that kids and their families understood the importance of the changes he was trying to make. He also says, emphatically, that he could not have done it without the help of the NYCHSF. “It’s a difficult road to navigate, in particular the process of ensuring that these dishes met the dietary requirements of USDA. Without the NYCHSF, we could never have made these changes. They bridged the gap because of their connections to the New York City Office of School Foods.”
Since implementing these changes, Groff says he has seen evidence of improvement of more than just kids’ eating habits. Attendance has increased every year to its current 96 percent attendance rate for the year (well above the city average of roughly 85 percent for 2012 to 2013). Groff’s kids also eat their lunch more than other kids; about 77 percent, compared to the citywide average of 68 percent. His teachers have noticed that kids are more attentive in the afternoons whereas they used to see the sugar crash in full effect. But it’s the school’s test scores that have perhaps been the biggest indicator that good eating means good grades. His school is ranked 11th in New York State based on test scores, and that’s without having a gifted and talented program.
In the future, Groff hopes to continue to introduce new menu items and plans to incorporate changes to the school’s fitness program as well, including working with PTA to install a rock-climbing wall. “I am really excited about what we have been able to do as a school and I am looking forward to continuing to do that and helping other people do the same.”
Andrea Strong is a freelance writer whose work often appears in Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She’s probably best known as the creator of The Strong Buzz, her food blog about New York City restaurants. She lives in Brooklyn with her two kids, her husband and her big appetite.