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If it's Monday, the L.A. Unified school cafeteria is meatless

March 05, 2013|By Carla Hall
  • Volunteer Renee Meshul serves Randee Mervin from the garden table at lunch at Mark Twain Middle School in Venice.
Volunteer Renee Meshul serves Randee Mervin from the garden table at lunch… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles public schools have just gone meatless on Mondays. But unlike the Los Angeles City Council’s resolution in November that simply urges people to observe a Monday without meat, the school system really has issued an edict. It stopped serving meat on Mondays last month. Of course, students could pack turkey sandwiches from home. But the school cafeterias won’t be selling them, and that’s a good thing.

The ethical reason for eating less meat is obvious -- fewer animals will be killed. Animal welfare advocates have always argued that cutting back on meat even a few meals a week ultimately means killing fewer animals, most of which are slaughtered under grim factory farm conditions. And consider this: The Los Angeles Unified School District serves 650,000 meals in its K-12 schools.

And introducing kids of all ages to a variety of vegetarian meals helps them -- hopefully -- expand their sense of choices when it comes to getting protein and heightens their awareness of animal welfare. 

Of course, people are constantly arguing over what foods are healthiest and will lower or raise your cholesterol or make you fat. I would argue that you have to be as vigilant about chicken and filet mignon as you do about pasta and hummus. You can be as unhealthy a vegetarian as you can be a carnivore.   

But, as with the meat options, the school district should be vigilant about what constitutes its vegetarian meals. This past Monday, most elementary schoolers were offered the Southwestern rice and bean bowl (sounds yummy to me), which clocks in at a reasonable 400 calories. The sodium count is 970 mg (and you can get all this nutritional information online), which sounds hefty to me. But that's under the school district's policy of no more than 1,100 mg of sodium per lunch entree, according to Laura Benavidez, deputy director of food services for L.A. Unified. And it's about the same as the chicken fajita the school cafeterias serve. In general,  according to the U.S. government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Americans under 51 should limit their sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day.

Los Angeles has the second-largest public school district in the country. It should be a model for enterprising school menus, and going meatless is a smart move.

My nutritionally-minded colleague, Alexandra Le Tellier, suggests it try sugarless Tuesdays. After all, the L.A. school system has already eliminated chocolate milk.

"Anything is possible," said Benavidez.

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