School in Queens goes all vegetarian

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Asked which school meals were their favorites, students at a public school in the New York borough of Queens don't say chicken fingers or meatballs. Instead, they name rice and kidney beans, black bean quesadillas or tofu with Chinese noodles.

"Whoever thought they would hear a third-grader saying that they liked tofu and Chinese noodles?" asked Dennis Walcott, New York City schools chancellor.

Walcott was at the Active Learning Elementary School this week to celebrate its move to all-vegetarian meals five days a week. The school of nearly 400 students, from pre-kindergarten to third grade, was founded five years ago on the principle that a healthy lifestyle leads to strong academic achievement.

"We decided on a vision where health and nutrition would be a part of educating the whole child," school principal Bob Groff said.

The school's focus on healthier meals began three years ago when Groff noticed a majority of students were bringing their own vegetarian meals. The school went meatless three days a week about a year and a half ago. It also tested meals on a small group of students, gathering feedback and changing the menu accordingly.

Active Learning's student body may be more accustomed to vegetarian diets than most, with 85% of the students being Asian and another 10% Hispanic, said Margie Feinberg, spokeswoman for the New York Department of Education.

"Rice was a staple of many of their home foods," Groff said of the students.

The vegetarian program expanded to four days a week last spring but reverted back to three days when the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its requirements for protein per serving in the fall, he said.

The school worked closely with the city's education department food program to ensure menu items met USDA standards. It officially went all-vegetarian in January.

"We've been working with tofu for a few months," Groff said. At first, the tofu was served as a seasonless block; now, smaller pieces of barbeque-flavored, oven roasted tofu are served with noodles. That, Groff said, "changes how the kids perceive it."

Other options might include roasted chickpeas, vegetarian chili and brown rice, or falafel, the city Department of Education said in a statement.

Students appear to be enthusiastic about their healthy meals.

"When you're healthy, you can do better on tests and you can fight more diseases," student Nick Lin told CNN affiliate NY1.

Following the announcement this week, Groff said he was welcomed into a PTA meeting with roaring applause.

He told parents the children may still bring whatever meal they like for lunch.

But "the vegetarian menu fits right in with our mission, and we are thrilled that our students in pre-kindergarten all the way up to grade three understand the importance of healthy and nutritious meals," Groff said in a statement.

New York schools -- which provide meals for 1.1 million students daily -- offer principals vegetarian and nonvegetarian lunch options. Groff worked closely with the department so that the menu changes came at no additional cost to the school.

He hired a school parent as a vegetarian chef to develop the menu and described his school as the vegetarian test kitchen for the city. One original recipe, called "Malini's Curry Chickpeas" after the school's chef, was offered as an option in schools across the city on Earth Day, he said.

The department hopes other schools will consider going vegetarian.

"As far as we know, (Active Learning) is the only public school in the nation that offers an all-vegetarian menu," Feinberg said.