PORTLAND, Maine — Cafeteria worker Alison Mason held out the options on a typical Friday at East End Community School, an airy elementary school on a hilltop in this coastal city: in one hand, a plate of traditional cheese pizza, in the other, a vegan option with milk-free flatbread, hummus, and sliced raw carrots, cucumber and olives.
Most kids took the pizza, but a few selected the vegan option. They declared it good — and even convinced some of their friends.
Fifth-grader Rahaf Hlail, 10, at first had the pizza, but eyeing a companion’s vegan version, asked for a taste. She said she’d get some for herself next time.
Rahaf, from an observant Muslim family, doesn’t eat non-halal meat, so she’s often looking at vegetarian or vegan options, and she’s excited that her school now has more choices. “On days when there’s a vegan option and an alternative, I get to choose,” she said.
The alternative lunch is usually just a sandwich with sun butter (resembling peanut butter but made from sunflower seeds). The sandwich is typically available every day, but until this year, it was the only vegan option.
Portland, Maine, is among the 14% of school districts across the country that provided vegan lunches for kids in at least one school in 2017, up from 11.5% in 2016, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit trade group representing school nutritionists and workers.
School districts from Maine to California — including New Bedford, Massachusetts; Lee County, Florida; Oakland, California; Washington, D.C.; and Boulder Valley, Colorado — have started serving vegan lunches, according to Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that tracks alternative school lunch options.
In California, a bill to provide $3 million to school districts across the state to include plant-based options for lunch was whipping through the legislature before being brought up short this year over money and objections from the beef industry.
The school districts that have adopted more vegetarian and vegan meals have received relatively little pushback from parents and residents. But as the California case shows, objections arise when officials try to expand the program statewide or put state money into it — mostly from the beef industry, whose representatives argue meat must be available for nutritional purposes.
Opposition also sometimes comes from state residents skeptical of introducing new and different foods to school lunch, some on the basis that kids won’t eat it.
In Portland, letters to a food columnist in the local paper mocking vegan options mostly were written by Maine residents outside of the district, the columnist reported.
East End Community School is the only one in Portland so far offering vegan meals, but Food Service Director Jane McLucas hopes to expand the program.
“It was a goal for me last year to come up with a way to improve our vegetarian options,” McLucas said. After some research, she decided to go with vegan meals, rather than just more of the vegetarian options already available. Vegan food does not use any animal products, including milk and eggs.
“I decided that I could better serve a community by doing something that encompassed all of my needs — vegetarian, vegan and multiculturalism here in the Portland community.”
While Portland is overwhelmingly white (84%), pockets of the city encompass many refugees, other immigrants and residents from a variety of backgrounds. At East End Community, the daily announcements include “good morning” in 23 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese, according to principal Boyd Marley.
The Title I school serves a large low-income population, and its share of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches meets Maine’s 40% threshold for all students to get free lunch, Marley said.
The California bill — which was approved by the Assembly and a couple of Senate committees — was stopped in the Senate Appropriations Committee over its $3 million price tag, according to sponsor Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, a Democrat. The money would have paid for grants of up to $100,000 to participating schools, to cover the costs of training, advertising, creating menus, technical assistance and student engagement efforts.
Nazarian said he’s no vegetarian, but he recognizes the need for children to have a balanced diet that includes less meat and more vegetables.
“In Armenian culture, meat makes up a big part of our cuisine,” said Nazarian, citing his own ethnic background. He said he wants to work with Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, to gain support for the spending, which would allow school districts to choose whether they want to participate in to the program.
A spokeswoman for state Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, a Republican who voted against the measure, said he declined to comment on the bill. Other California lawmakers who opposed the bill did not return calls seeking comment.
A 2016 study by the Harvard School of Public Health reported that for every pound of beef consumed in the United States, 27 pounds of greenhouse gases were produced. By contrast, the report said, production of dry beans produced 2 pounds of greenhouse gases for every pound.
But Justin Oldfield — the vice president for government relations of the California Cattlemen’s Association who testified against Nazarian’s bill — said the science behind claims of a plant-based diet helping to assuage climate change is overstated.
“We would object strenuously to any argument that we can eat our way out of climate change,” Oldfield said in a phone interview. “The majority of the information cited by those groups doesn’t look at the efficiencies of U.S. producers, especially in California, where the products that are being consumed in schools are being produced by California ranchers and farmers.”
Oldfield also argued that meat is essential to meeting children’s nutritional requirements for school lunches.
Testimony against the bill also came from food service workers who argued that it’s hard to get kids to eat veggies.
Frank Mitloehner — professor in air quality in the department of agriculture at the University of California-Davis and an expert on cattle methane gas production — questioned whether the switch to vegan lunches would have much effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
Concentrating on meat production in climate change obscures the fact that fossil fuels are a much bigger culprit, he said. “Changing what we eat to help climate change is side-tracking us in a dangerous way.”
Nazarian says his bill is not about “getting rid of meat. I do understand [cattle producers’] concerns; that’s not my goal. This is enhancing and complementing it.”
Freelance columnist Avery Kamila, who writes a vegan food column for the Portland Press Herald in Maine and advocated for such meals in the schools, said there was little resistance to the idea within Portland, but “people outside of Portland were mocking the idea” and sent her letters and emails.
“I got a few emails from readers who couldn’t believe I would suggest that schools should be serving vegan lunch,” she said. But Portland’s reputation of being welcoming to refugees, particularly from African countries with large Muslim populations, helped generate support for the vegan lunch program, she said.
McLucas said she’s gotten more positive feedback from the parents than the kids. One dish the school tried was lentil sloppy Joe mix. “The kids haven’t taken to it quite as fast as the parents. We’ll give it a while, anyway.”
Amari Brent, 10, who goes to East End Community, was munching the sun butter sandwich at lunch, but said he had tried some of the vegan options. “They are pretty good, but not the boiled carrot hot dog,” he said. Amari, who said he is lactose intolerant, said the menus are “better this year.”
Asked if there were any dishes he would like to see added to the menu, he thought a moment.
“We live in Portland. Why don’t we have lobster?”