With Veganuary in full swing (and hundreds of thousands of participants around the globe eating plants to cut climate emissions), Portland is charting a path as a leader in serving vegan hot lunches to students.

In September, Portland, Maine’s largest school district, restarted its vegan hot lunch program for the elementary schools. It was begun in the 2019-2020 school year but put on hold the following year because of remote schooling during the pandemic. It resumed this fall. Each day, students in the city’s 10 elementary schools can choose among a vegan hot lunch, a traditional hot lunch or a vegan sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

Serving plant-based entrees makes Portland “a leader in this space for K to 12 food service,” said Karla Dumas, a registered dietitian and the director of the Humane Society of the United States’ food service innovation division.

The Humane Society’s program Forward Food offers free recipes, chef training and other support to school districts interested in adding plant-based, vegan meals to their menus. The organization also has an environmental scientist available to calculate how much districts reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by replacing some animal-based meat and dairy with plant-based foods. Dumas estimates that 10 percent of school districts in the U.S. offer vegan choices every day, but many of those are cold items (such as sunflower butter sandwiches).

Most of the major school districts that serve vegan hot lunches, such as Los Angeles, offer them at the high school level. In Portland, the pattern is reversed, with daily hot vegan choices at the elementary schools, no hot vegan choices at the middle schools and a veggie burger as the only hot vegan option at the high schools. Jane McLucas, Portland’s food service director, plans to bring hot vegan items to the middle schools but said pandemic-related challenges have delayed the rollout.

Any elementary student can order a vegan lunch, and it may have broad appeal. With a student population that is almost half non-white, many Portland students could have dairy intolerances; the ability to digest lactose into adulthood is linked to northern European ancestry. Also, Portland students who are members of the Muslim, Jewish, Ethiopian Orthodox or Seventh-day Adventist communities may avoid animal-based meat and dairy for religious reasons.

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As a parent of a vegan elementary student, the addition of daily vegan hot lunches has been transformative for my family, saving us time, money and headaches. I have not packed a single lunch for my third-grader this school year. Instead, at the start of the school year, I explained to him: “Each day the school offers a vegan hot lunch and a sun butter sandwich. Pick one.” And he has.

This month, Portland’s vegan hot lunches include veggie burgers from Dr. Praeger’s, taco boats, falafels with rice, chili with macaroni, orange tofu with rice, bean and rice bowls, and build-your-own hummus pizzas. One day a month, the only hot lunch option is the popular vegetarian chili served with baked Maine potatoes and tortilla chips, so all the students eat vegan. Most often the traditional hot lunch includes beef or chicken, although a few days a month, the entree is vegetarian, such as cheese pizza or a toasted cheese sandwich.

The vegan lunches are “a great product that we’re proud to serve,” McLucas said.

I asked my son, Alden, what he likes on the vegan hot lunch menu. “The baked potato with beans and chips is my favorite,” he said without hesitation, referring to the vegetarian chili. “My second favorite is the black bean burger. My third favorite is the tofu and my fourth favorite is the falafel. Actually, I like the tofus and the black bean burger the same amount.”

He’d like to see more kung pao tofu, and that vegetarian chili, and he’d like to see fewer raw vegetables. “Today they had peas,” Alden told me. “Not cooked. Not salted. Just peas. Why would they put peas there? I would like more strawberries or things kids actually like.”

The pandemic has shuttered the schools’ salad bars, so the fruits and vegetables now come pre-plated with each tray.

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Portland Public Schools board member and parent Adam Burk says his son eats the vegan lunches every day, too. Vegan hot lunch has allowed Burk’s son, my son, other vegan children, and students who avoid meat or dairy for religious or health reasons, to be included in the rite of passage known as eating school lunch. This move toward inclusiveness in the cafeteria has expanded the daily options for vegetarians, too.

The number of students asking for the vegan meals varies widely by school, according to McLucas, with the most vegan lunches served at Rowe Elementary and at least one elementary school serving none; McLucas declined to identify the school. At East End Community School, where my son attends, students are handed the traditional hot lunch and have to ask for the vegan option.

Burk thinks more students opt for vegan lunches at Rowe because the students there are offered a choice.

“The style of giving kids the meat option and making kids ask for the vegan option was what happened at Rowe in the beginning too,” he said. “We, and likely other families, inquired about this and a change was made soon after. How the choices are presented definitely makes a difference. My kid at Rowe says that now he is offered both options every day, and it’s easy to choose the vegan option.”

Sara Rubin, assistant principal of Lyseth Elementary and a mother of two students at Rowe, is a big fan of the vegan hot lunches. Based on her observations in the cafeteria, she agreed with Burk that requiring elementary students to ask for the vegan lunch prevents some students from taking it. She said the addition of masks plus language barriers make it even more difficult for some young students to speak up. Rubin suspects that some vegan and vegetarian students still pack their own lunches because of concerns about whether they’ll actually get a hot lunch – during the program’s first year, the vegan lunches often ran out – and general mistrust of school food.

My family has had firsthand experience with the communication and trust issues she raised. On a recent Tuesday, the menu listed falafel as the vegan choice, but my son said he was offered a vegan hot dog. He opted for the sunflower butter sandwich. “I never eat the vegan hot dogs because they look exactly the same as the meat hot dogs,” he said, adding that maybe “they didn’t hear me and gave me the meat hot dog.”

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It’s a legitimate concern in a loud cafeteria where everyone is wearing a mask. When I asked McLucas about the vegan hot dogs, she confirmed that no such item was being served, meaning the hot dog my son was offered was not vegan. McLucas attributed the mix-up to a substitute on duty that day along with the kitchen manager being out, evidence of the department’s ongoing staffing challenges.

The reinstatement of the vegan lunches comes as the Portland schools are facing a severe staffing shortage and as federal funding for universal free lunch has increased the overall number of lunches the school is serving.

The Portland food service department, which runs a central kitchen off of Riverside Street and staffs 16 school cafeterias, is short on staff everywhere. McLucas, instead of tending to administrative duties (including tracking down and filing free and reduced price lunch forms, which the federal government still requires despite the universal free lunch funding) is spending her days serving food in the cafeterias. When I asked her how many more lunches the schools are serving this year than previously, she replied it’s a lot but she didn’t yet have the figures. It’s “one of those things on my to-do list,” she added. A list that grows longer by the day.

Despite staff shortages, McLucas said her team in the central kitchen continues to refine the vegan hot lunch menus. “They’ve been experimenting with meat substitute type of things to create seasoned vegan taco meat,” she said. “They’re making it in-house, seasoning the tofu or beans so they can mimic more of that taco type filling.”

The vegan lunches haven’t added to the district’s costs, McLucas said, in part because the vegan lunches rely on affordable ingredients such as beans and rice, and also the central kitchen makes as much from scratch as possible.

“Dr. Praeger’s is a little on the pricey side, but we do OK just serving that once a week,” McLucas said. “We’re buying the falafel in bulk.”

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On top of being short staffed, McLucas and her team have struggled to obtain supplies, as the district is, like everybody else, plagued by supply-chain shortages. It helps that her team buys a lot of Maine-grown produce in season, McLucas said, processes it and freezes it for later use – homemade tomato sauce, for instance.

That pleases Burk. He is unhappy with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodities program, which he said “makes the marketplace for food that schools purchase weighed heavily in favor of meat” and “large-scale industrial farming.”

“How to move commodities to support smaller, local farms is the ultimate nut to crack perhaps when it comes to school food,” he said.

Until then, the Portland Public Schools have become a leader in the movement to cut government expenditures on industrial, animal-based food, and its associated greenhouse gasses, by embracing vegan menu items.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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