Vegetarian dishes a viable new option for school lunch

ST. PAUL (AP) — School lunches aren’t what they used to be — well, at least there are more choices.
In South St. Paul, most students lined up for barbecued rib sandwiches, burgers and fries or Papa John’s meat and cheese pizza.
But Amy McBain and Erin Reinke decided to try something different. The South St. Paul Secondary School eighth-graders opted for a 4-ounce bagel with seasoned cream cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and lettuce.
“It’s really good and I’m glad I took it,” McBain said.
The meatless entree clearly was eclipsed by the a la carte pizza, but it is one of the few vegetarian items school cooks have found that teenagers will try, said Barbara Lackner, South St. Paul food service director. Another is a vegetarian tortilla wrap.
“We did vegetarian lasagna and chili at one time because kids requested it,” Lackner said. “When we put it on the menu nobody would eat it … (Teens) say they’re vegetarians, but when they actually see it, they decide they’re not vegetarians.”
Few Twin Cities schools showcased meatless menus during National School Lunch Week last week, despite teenagers’ heightened interest in vegetarianism.
While the number of true teenage vegetarians is believed to be small — in a 1995 Roper Poll, only 1 percent of kids 13 to 17 said they never eat red meat, fish or fowl — larger numbers approve of a meatless lifestyle. Teenager Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill., marketing research firm, found this fall that 35 percent of teenage girls and 15 percent of teen boys think vegetarianism is “in.”
St. Paul schools offer choices such as cheese or veggie pizza, cheese bread without meat sauce or tacos with cheese but no meat, said Jean Ronnei, food service director. Baby carrots, fruit, peanut butter and other extras also are available.
St. Francis and Rochester school districts have tried more extensive vegetarian menus. Their common denominator is food service director Susan Richardson, who recently left St. Francis for Rochester.
Richardson said there was no interest in vegetarian school meals when she began working in school nutrition 15 years ago.
“I had to convince the cooks there was a population,” she said. “They had to discover it was actually easier to make meatless spaghetti sauce.”
Popular vegetarian recipes at St. Francis include a tater-tot casserole, cheese ravioli, a cheese “pretzelwich,” a potato bar, cheese pizza and meatless cold pasta salad. Even though the school has 10 true vegetarians at most, she said, over time other kids have started to enjoy the meatless entrees.
In Rochester, the diverse student population includes many immigrants who can’t eat meat or pork for religious reasons.
The district will introduce a lentil and eggplant dish called masala in November, Richardson said. “We’ll serve that with mashed potatoes. That’s what the kids asked for.”