Is it possible for day schools to cut out meat? Gesher Day School in Fairfax, VA thinks so. Gesher transitioned from meat heavy lunches to a vegetarian lunch program in 2018, and is recognized by Jewish Leadership Circle (JLC) for meeting the goals of the Plant-Forward Track. In addition to going vegetarian, Gesher also cut its egg purchasing by half, and usually serves vegan desserts. The following is an interview with Sara LaFountain, head of the school’s kosher lunch program (check out her blog, Cook with 5 Kids, here).
What inspired/motivated the process of considering the school’s food choices? How did you begin?
I have been running the school food program for the past three years. I make all the decisions along with the head chef, who is my son. As a mom, I always encourage my children to make healthy food choices, so I do the same with the children at school. I have taken a few nutrition classes so all of these factors help me guide my cooking and school food policies.
What became the school’s new policy? How did it differ from the school’s past sourcing and serving practices?
We joined our school five years ago. At the time, the school did not cook any food. The lunch person heated up frozen foods like pizza or chicken nuggets. When we inquired about taking over the school lunch program, the head of school as well as the lunch person were both thrilled. No one had really tried to create a school lunch program before we joined. Before we took over the lunch program, the school served meat three times per week and dairy the other two days. We immediately said that two days of meat were the maximum number of days we would consider. We did that for a year, and then we transitioned to meat one day a week. We now do vegetarian lunches five days a week. Prior to instituting the all-vegetarian program, it was important to the school that their facility become kosher-certified. By becoming a vegetarian lunch program, it was easy to also get a kosher certification for our lunch and catering, so it was a win-win.
What was your/your family’s role in guiding the school toward this new practice?
Our family was completely responsible for guiding the school towards becoming vegetarian. We researched what it would take to get a kosher certification and it was right in line with our strong feelings to get rid of all meat lunches.
What challenges did you encounter? What did you learn?
We did not encounter many challenges. A few people on the staff felt very strongly that the school would want meat lunches to be served three days a week. We believed that if the food was delicious, the kids would enjoy it. We also promised to make some of their favorite meals such as tacos, vegetarian. Happily, we assumed right: the kids were overwhelmingly positive about all the changes once they were implemented. We learned that if the food is excellent, the kids will love it.
How was this new practice received by parents and staff?
Everyone at the school, students, parents, and staff were ultimately happy with the change. Yes, it took a few weeks for parents to understand why we made the shift. But, after the initial few weeks it has all been smooth sailing. The kids love the food and the staff is ordering lunch more often than they did when we served meat!
How does taking meat off the menu figure into the school’s perspective on taking responsibility for protecting people, animals, and the planet? How did it align with the school’s priorities?
Taking meat off the menu is a perfect match for the school’s priorities of practicing kindness, justice, and respect. Gesher helps students aspire to a life guided by Jewish values, Torah, and community. There are many Jewish values in adopting a vegetarian diet which include: compassion for animals, better health and life, conservation of resources, and kashrut, which helps guide our vision and practice of serving food that is “fit” to eat.
What is something you’d like other communities and Jewish schools to know?
I would love other communities and schools to know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is totally possible. If the food is delicious the kids will eat it, and a plant-centered diet has so many positive implications for our health. Give it a try, you might be surprised by the results!