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The menu looked fairly ordinary at Healdsburg Elementary School on a recent Monday as young students lined up for lunch: chili, crackers, string cheese and a salad bar. But there was one notable exception. Meat was nowhere to be seen.

A growing number of districts around the county, state and country regularly offer vegetarian options to their students, but Healdsburg Unified School District’s Meatless Monday has one of the county’s only completely vegetarian menus.

Santa Rosa City Schools is in its third year of offering the Meatless Mondays program, and Novato Unified and Oakland Unified are also on board, said Kristie Middleton, food policy manager for the Humane Society of the United States, which coordinates Meatless Mondays across the country.

Middleton thinks Healdsburg’s recent adoption of the program will inspire other Sonoma County school districts to do the same.

“Hopefully, it will serve as an example to other schools in the area,” she said. “Sonoma County is renowned worldwide for its food, for realizing the benefits of plant-based eating. Hopefully, the schools in the area will get on board and lead the nation as they have with other issues.”

On a recent Monday, students didn’t seem to notice that meat was missing. They ate their watermelon, cheese sticks and even broccoli with zeal. Some devoured their bean chili and others pecked at it, but nobody complained about the missing ground beef.

Healdsburg’s Food Service Supervisor Rosa Rubio said she has heard no angst, though some vegetarian entrees have gone over better than others. Veggie burgers were a bust, and many students gave the chili a lukewarm reception.

“I like the watermelon because it’s so juicy,” said first-grader Miguel Moreno before taking a bite. “The beans are not as good.”

Across the table, first-grader Diego Hernandez disagreed. Dipping his spoon into his chili bowl, he asserted, “I think they’re good because I like beans.”

More popular meatless entrees include bean tacos, cheese pizza, ravioli, and SunButter and jelly sandwiches.

All students seemed to enjoy the salad bar, which is on offer every day. Some doubled up on the predictable favorite — watermelon — but others grabbed big servings of celery or broccoli.

Meatless Monday is the latest step in the school’s efforts to make its meals healthier. The program’s roots go back to World War I, when schools tried to reduce their meat consumption in order to conserve supplies for the troops, Middleton said. The concept was revived about a decade ago, but focused more on student health and the environment than conserving food for the armed forces.

“Eating meat-free one day a week can help reduce your carbon footprint. It can reduce student weight and chronic disease risk. It can reduce animals in factory farms,” Middleton said.

Every participating school, she said, “agrees we as a society are eating too much meat and wants to raise awareness about meat-free options that are low in cholesterol and good for the planet.”

Rubio, who took charge of the district’s food services division last year, said she has personally seen the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, which was one reason she wanted to offer students vegetarian options. Also, she said, many students were asking for a meatless entree.

Rubio estimated that 40 percent of students opt for the vegetarian option on any given day.

“For our district, it works out,” she said. “We encourage students to give a voice about what they’d like to see on the menu.”

The district now offers its roughly 1,000 students a vegetarian entree each day.

So when Middleton contacted Rubio about Meatless Monday, it sounded like a great idea.

She started the program this fall but held off on labeling it Meatless Monday, because she wanted to see how it would go over without influencing students one way or the other by the name. So far, she said, they seem to be on board.

Bryan Nyberg, director of the Child Nutrition Services program at Santa Rosa City Schools, said his program also has met with little resistance.

“Part of it is being creative and making things that don’t sound vegetarian,” he said. He has incorporated meat substitutes into dishes like veggie sloppy Joes, meatless pot pies and vegetarian shepherd’s pie.

“The world of child nutrition is radically different from what it was in past years,” Healdsburg Superintendent Jeff Harding said. “We’re offering a wide variety of healthy foods I never saw when I was a kid.”

Long gone, he said, is the district’s frying machine. Per new federal requirements, white breads and pasta have been replaced with whole grains.

“I’ve been surprised,” he said. “Students are eating jicama, hummus and yogurt. Healthy foods are evident in all our schools.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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