Side salads await the students of Eastside Elementary School in...

Side salads await the students of Eastside Elementary School in Clinton, Miss. Credit: AP, 2012

Each new school year, it seems, brings another school-lunch controversy. What will it be this year? Last year, it was "pink slime," the bright pink ammonia-treated meat that was deemed a "high-risk product" by scientists and rejected by fast-food restaurants. Schools can still serve it, though.

That's not exactly surprising when you consider that schools are also permitted to serve irradiated meat and count pizza as a vegetable if it contains at least two tablespoons of tomato paste.

I wonder whether government officials have plans to classify cherry soda and strawberry-glazed donuts as fruit, too. Seriously, it's not the "lunch ladies" that kids should be afraid of - it's the mystery meats and other unappetizing, and potentially harmful, fare that passes as lunch in many school cafeterias.

Canned tuna remains on the menu in many schools, even though a 2012 Mercury Policy Project report indicates that it may contain unsafe mercury levels. Many other cafeteria staples, including the aforementioned mystery meats as well as chicken nuggets and cheese-pizza boats, are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Kids may like Gummy Boogers and candy bugs, but that doesn't mean that schools should serve gross, unhealthy foods. They can best help keep our kids lean and healthy by serving them vegan meals and teaching them why it's important to eat plant-based foods.

Vegan foods are cholesterol-free and generally low in saturated fat and calories. Many are packed with protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates and other essential nutrients. Children who eat plant-based foods rather than animal-derived ones are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes and cancer. According to the American Heart Association, there is evidence that atherosclerosis - hardening of the arteries - begins in childhood and progresses into adulthood, at which point it leads to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

Although we can't expect young children to understand the ABCs of heart disease or the complex role of cancer-fighting antioxidants, we can teach them that meat, eggs and dairy products contribute to serious health problems, while plant foods help prevent - and sometimes even reverse - them.

Unfortunately, according to Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, elementary-school students in the U.S. receive only about 3.4 hours of food education every year.

The good news is that some organizations are working to change this situation. The Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas, for example, has a farm-to-school program, Sprouting Healthy Kids, that helps school-lunch administrators obtain seasonal, locally grown produce. The center offers classroom lessons to introduce students to healthy food and an after-school gardening and cooking program. Katchkie Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Kinderhook, N.Y., also offers after-school programs to teach students how to cook simple plant-based meals.

In May, the Active Learning Elementary School in Queens, N.Y., became the first all-vegetarian school in the nation, and hundreds of public schools across the country now observe "Meatless Mondays." Several public schools, including those in Pinellas County, Fla.; Howard County, Md.; Knox County, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; and Atlanta, scored high marks on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's 2012 School Lunch Report Card for regularly serving healthy plant-based dishes, such as vegetarian chili and pasta e fagioli.

Not every school in every state has healthful options, but parents can still help their kids develop a taste for wholesome foods by packing them tasty vegan lunches, featuring kid-friendly favorites, such as peanut, almond or cashew butter; apple slices or bananas; hummus; a thermos full of vegetable or faux-chicken noodle soup; or Tofurky and soy-cheese roll-ups. Then kids will be able to spend more time in the classroom - and on the playground - than at the doctor's office.

Heather Moore is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation.

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