Gianna Cassetta cringed as she peeked at the lunch the kindergartner brought from home and pulled from his sack onto the lunchroom table at SOAR, a Denver charter school: a Lunchable packaged meal, Cheez-it crackers, a granola bar and Capri Sun juice drink.

SOAR second-grader Malick Diakite shows his approval for the school's menu.

“Families don’t always make the most nutritious choices,” said Cassetta, SOAR’s head of school. “We don’t beat families up for sending a granola bar to school. We won’t take it away and throw it in the trash. But we may ask a child to take it home and have a piece of fruit instead. And then we’ll have a conversation with the parents to clarify.”

At other tables, most youngsters were tucking into the meals provided in the school lunch line – picnic pasta salad with veggies and whole grain goldfish crackers or pasta marinara with beans and carrots. Dessert was grapes or apples. The beverage was a choice of 1% or fat-free skim milk.

No meat. No sodas. Nothing sugary. Only minimally processed foods. Organic or locally-produced ingredients whenever possible. Nothing fried. No artificial preservatives, colors, flavors or sweeteners.

Trying to change children’s eating habits early

As Colorado’s only all-vegetarian school, SOAR is attempting to raise up a generation of healthy eaters.

The year-old charter school is one of more than 60 Colorado schools to contract with Revolution Foods to provide healthy, organic school lunches to students.

Food education
“We don’t beat families up for sending a granola bar to school. We won’t take it away and throw it in the trash. But we may ask a child to take it home and have a piece of fruit instead.”
– Gianna Cassetta, SOAR

But it’s the only school to insist that the lunches be all “plant-based,” a term school officials have found less anxiety-creating among parents than is “vegetarian.”

Cost for lunch at SOAR is $3.02 – more than twice the average cost for a meal in most DPS schools. About 80 percent of the school’s students opt for the school-provided meal each day.

Parents who want to pack their child’s lunch always have the option of including meat for the meal. But they won’t find meat or junk food for sale at school, and the school is pretty strict about the twice-daily snacks the kids are allowed: just whole fruits or vegetables.

“Nobody is sneaking in candy bars, but sometimes kids do bring in foods that are not part of our policy,” Cassetta said. “Parents get confused. But most are very supportive. A few are ‘Oh my God, what will life be like without meat at lunch?’ It’s a process. But we work with you, and with encouragement and time, kids can become really good eaters.”

The unique nutrition program at SOAR, a charter school located at the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus in Green Valley Ranch, stems from earlier experiences Cassetta and her husband, Marc Waxman, had in launching a new school in Harlem 12 years ago.

“Our thinking was, if we wanted to do this right, we had to pay attention to what the kids ate, because so much of what they ate was unhealthy,” Cassetta said.

In New York, the owner of a vegan restaurant donated the services of one of her chefs two days a week to help provide healthier menus to the students, many of whom suffered from obesity, diabetes and asthma.

Plant-based foods to improve children’s health

“When we started SOAR, we wanted to apply all the lessons we had learned in New York right from the start,” Cassetta said. “There is tons of research about plant-based foods preventing disease. We know the kids will still eat meat at home. We know there will still be unhealthy eating. But in small pockets, we’re making a difference in the way people think about food. Hopefully by the time our kids are in fifth grade, they’ll be very conscious about what they eat.”

Seventy percent of SOAR’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because they live in poverty or near-poverty. So for many, it’s a matter of educating their families about making smart food choices with limited resources. The school’s nutrition committee, headed by registered dietitian Cathy Schmelter, has done a lot to provide parents with the information they need.

“In the winter, it was hard for parents to find good fresh fruits and vegetables for their children’s snacks,” Schmelter said. “It was just a lot of apples and carrots, and the kids got bored with it. So one night we had a demonstration that most of the parents came to. We served a lot of different snacks they might not have thought about. We had blood oranges, edamame, bananas with cocoa and coconut, just different ideas. The parents loved it.”

Plans are in the works to offer cooking classes for parents. But the school has even more ambitious food education plans in mind.

Parents will train other parents

Next year, a second SOAR will open in Oakland Elementary School in Montbello.

Every lunch at SOAR comes with fresh fruit and veggies, and milk is hormone-free.

SOAR@Oakland will serve all students in grades K-2 at Oakland during the 2011-12 school year, but the following year SOAR will serve all the students in the building. The school’s nutrition committee hopes to train existing SOAR parents to become food ambassadors, who can help parents at the new SOAR more easily adapt to the school’s food policies and incorporate healthier eating in their home menu planning.

“We’ve had less pushback from the non-meat policy than from our snack policy,” Schmelter said. “We’ve had a few comments but really, the parents are behind it because they know it’s a healthier diet for their kids, and it’s changing the way they eat at home. One parent told me that when they go to the store, her daughter will ask if an item is something she can bring to school and, if it’s not, they put it back.”

For all their good intentions, school officials acknowledged that walking the straight and narrow nutrition course hasn’t always been easy, and they have made some missteps along the way. Not all the meals served there have met with enthusiasm from the children.

“It’s been hard to get a good menu,” Cassetta said. “Our menu is evolving. We want to make sure we offer foods that are kid-friendly, that taste good.”

But some of the foods she’d like to introduce to the kids – things like tofu and seitan – aren’t reimbursable by the federal government. What the government will reimburse the school for often doesn’t meet the school’s nutritional standards.

“So our immediate response was to have lots of cheese and beans, stuff kids like but not the variety we want,” she said.

SOAR students test Revolution Foods

Sonia Sisneros, manager of school relations for Revolution Foods, admits that providing so many non-meat meals every week at SOAR has proven challenging. At other schools that contract with Revolution Foods, there’s always one vegetarian option every day, but coming up with solely plant-based menus that appeal to children day after day has stretched the company’s chefs.

Smallest critics
“Some of the food here I don’t like. But I like the yogurt.”
– Julissa Romero, 6

“I guess I like pasta salad, but my favorite is pizza.”
– Savannah Fernandez, 6

“I love vegetarian. A beet slider sounds terrific to me, but that won’t go with a first-grader,” Sisneros said. “They won’t go near it. So we’ve been challenged to make sure our items are familiar, delicious, not complicated and have no spices that would intimidate the kids.”

Sisneros regularly schedules taste tests at SOAR, and the children there are helping the company improve its vegetarian offerings around the country.

“Gianna has given me full access to her kids,” she said. “We bring out samples and give everyone in the lunchroom a taste and ask them how it tastes, how it smells, how it looks. They give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.”

After Sisneros gets feedback from the students, she turns the proposed menu items over to the company’s nutritional compliance department to make sure the recipe is not high in sodium, and qualifies for federal reimbursement. Then the chefs further refine the menu to add appropriate side dishes.

So far this year, Revolution has developed three new menu items thanks to feedback from the SOAR kids: a meatless spaghetti, a meatless Sloppy Joe and a veggie burger.

The spaghetti was an automatic hit on all counts. The veggie burger and the Sloppy Joe were more problematic.

Kids initially liked the Sloppy Joe, but it had too much sodium. So chefs tweaked the recipe using more black beans to lower the sodium. But the children didn’t care for the black beans. Chefs tried again, this time using pinto beans. The children will sample this version later this month.

“With kids this age, it’s the color of the beans,” Sisneros said. “I think the pinto bean will go over better. But this is why having access to the kids is critical. I know what tastes good to me, but it may not taste good to the kids.”

With the veggie burger, chefs discovered that the children wouldn’t eat it unless the beans were totally ground up and unrecognizable as beans.

Cassetta said part of the trick in getting children to accept new foods is to have adults encourage them. Now, when students balk at a food, their teachers urge them to “take three bites.”

“Once the teachers began always doing that, we saw an immediate shift in the kids’ eating,” Cassetta said. “They love fresh fruit. That’s a no-brainer. Getting them to eat veggies is a little trickier.”

Pizza: the universal favorite

In the lunchroom at SOAR, the youngsters aren’t shy about expressing their opinions. They’ll eagerly endorse some foods, and just as eagerly reject others.

“The only thing I really like at school are the hoagies and the egg-and-cheese sandwiches,” said Callie Ann Brown, 5½, who on this day packed her own lunch of a peanut butter sandwich, mangoes, apple sauce and carrots.

Nearby, her classmate Julissa Romero, 6, was wishing that she’d brought her lunch that day too, since she only liked the pasta salad “a little bit.” “Some of the food here I don’t like,” she said. “But I like the yogurt.”

Six-year-old Savannah Fernandez acknowledges that she sometimes misses meat at lunch, but viewed the pasta salad as acceptable. “This is healthy,” she said. “I guess I like pasta salad, but my favorite is pizza.”

She won’t have to wait long. By popular demand, every Wednesday is pizza day at SOAR. But the pizza is made with whole wheat flour, the cheese is low-fat and the toppings vegetarian.

A SOAR snack: Banana Dog in a Bun

1 whole wheat hot dog bun
1 tablespoon peanut butter or cream cheese
1 tablespoon strawberry jam or honey
1 whole banana
Raisins, shredded coconut or chopped peanuts for sprinkling

Spread one inner surface of a split hot dog bun with peanut butter or cream cheese. Spread the other side with jam or honey. Have your child peel a banana and place it in the bun. Have them sprinkle raisins, coconut or peanuts on top.

Source: SOAR Nutrition Committee