DENVER (AP) — More kids could get vegetarian meals and nondairy food and drink in the school cafeteria under a bill proposed by Colorado congressman Jared Polis.
"One of the things I've always been dismayed by is the nutritional value of the meals schools serve," Polis said Monday before promoting his Healthy School Meals Act at a suburban Denver charter school.
Polis, a Democrat, wants to give schools an incentive to offer more plant-based food. He estimated it would cost around $50 million a year but said he believes that would be more than offset in health care savings because fewer children would suffer from juvenile diabetes, heart disease and other conditions linked to obesity.
He said many students are lactose-intolerant and would benefit from nondairy alternatives.
Polis said school meal planners are well intentioned but many can't afford healthier foods than they now offer.
He said even one healthier meal a day would make a difference. For many children, the food they eat at school is the best food they get all day.
Healthier school meals would also help instill good habits that children will carry into adulthood, he said.
Shalene McNeill, a nutritionist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said children need choices in school lunches but she cautioned against letting beef get crowded off the menu.
"The movement toward vegetarian meals could mean the unintended consequence of eliminating high-quality beef products from meals," she said.
Peggy Armstrong of the International Dairy Foods Association said it would be difficult for students to get vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients without low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
She said strategies are available for people with lactose intolerance to make dairy food easier to digest.
Colorado's Boulder Valley School District in Colorado already offers a vegetarian meal every day in every school. About 10 to 20 percent of the students chose it, Nutrition Services Director Ann Cooper said.
It can range from macaroni and cheese or a bean-and-cheese burrito to a veggie burger or a tofu entree, she said.
Some meals are more popular than others, she said, but mac and cheese is usually a hit.
Although some of the district's students come from health-conscious Boulder, the district encompasses nine other communities from Denver suburbs to mountain villages, and not all of them grew up in vegetable-friendly Boulder, Cooper said.
"We don't push it one way or another. It's just an option," she said.
Lisa Whitsell, a member of the district's Parent Council and mother of first- and seventh-graders, said the district has limited schoolchildren's choices too much.
She said her children dislike meals served at Aspen Creek elementary, and that the school no longer has a microwave for kids to heat up lunches they bring from home. That leaves a cold sack lunch as the only alternative.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.