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RRP #34: Christian Ledesma & Bob Groff: How PS244 Became the First U.S. Public School to Institute a Vegetarian School Lunch Program

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Today on the show I visit New York’s PS244 – The Active Learning Elementary School — in Flushing, Queens to chat with science teacher and Director of the school’s Wellness and Nutrition Program Christian Ledesma, as well as PS244′s Principal Bob Groff to find out how PS244 became the first public school in the United States to institute a vegetarian school lunch.

But what I pleasantly discovered went well beyond a simple cafeteria upgrade.  PS244′s revolutionary school lunch program is just the latest manifestation of a school founded on principals of wellness.  It’s fair to say that the very fibre of PS244′s  DNA is the promotion of holistic health for kids premised on the advancement of not just the mind, but that of the childrens’ bodies & character.  

And it shows.  I saw food being grown in hanging gardens along the playground fences.  Kindergartners making their own granola bars and tasting blackberries in after-school programs.  Even a tower garden in the school library.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the day-to-day goings on at this special institute.

What PS244 has accomplished — seemingly impossible within the confines of a very large & bureaucratic urban school district — is beyond inspiring.  And yet obviously doable when passion aligns with faith and hard work.  The bar is set.  And my hope is that this school’s example will empower other teachers, administrators, principals, parents and students to take greater initiative in their own schools and districts and aspire for positive change.

Special thanks to Amie Hamlin, Executive Director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.  It was her and this organization, working tirelessly for several years in alliance with the New York Department of Education, that made the impossible real.  My desire was to include Amie in this interview, but she was not in NYC on the day of my visit, so my plan is to interview her for a future podcast episode.  Stay tuned!

Enjoy the show.

Want to learn more about how they did it and/or get involved? See the below links.  And don’t miss the NY Times piece on grade-schooler Zachary Maxwell and his behind-the-scenes exposé short documentary “Yuck!” – it’s amazing.

SHOW NOTES

PS244 Website

PS244 Current School Lunch Menu

New York Coalition for Healthy School Food “NYCHSF”) Website

New York Coalition for Healthy School Food on Twitter: @CoolSchoolFood

New York Coalition for Healthy School Food on Facebook

FAN4Kids, PS244′s Fitness and Nutrition education program

Alliance for a Healthier Generation, who gave PS244 the framework for being a healthy school and has recognized it as one of the healthiest schools in the nation: 

Info on Tower Garden in PS244 library.  NOTE: Te tower garden in PS244′s library was donated to the school by NYCHSF via Arthur Field, who works for the company that makes the tower gardens.  Thanks Arthur and Amie!

Woolly Pocket, the garden on the fence in PS244′s backyard

NYC’s Office of School Food, in charge of serving 1.1 million kids

PS244 on Twitter: @PS244Q

Zachary Maxwell & his Documentary “Yuck!”: “The Michael Moore of the Grade-School Lunchroom”

FINDING ULTRA PAPERBACK IN TIME FOR FATHER’S DAY

Hey – you gotta get dear old dad something for Father’s Day, right?  Well, I have just the thing.  Finding Ultra just hit bookstores and online retailers in paperback.  And it’s cheap - just $12.45 on Amazon right now.  What the heck, right?  That’s like a one cold pressed juice at Whole Foods; and will hopefully be even a bit more nourishing.  Then tell a friend.

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Thanks for listening!

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  • Christian Ledesma

    This is a great interview. No bias here.

  • Rob Oliver

    Fitness and nutrition education at a young allows for powerful things to happen. I’ve seen it impact thousands of kids and families in the past 10 years.

  • Ann

    Hi Rich, This was a great interview. Thanks for going out to the school and doing this. It’s very interesting to hear the ‘real’ story – the media has made the school look bad, making it look like they forced the program on the kids. As we know, many people reacted very negatively to the media story. There is always another perspective to consider.
    On a side note, the podcasts have been great – have been listening to each one.
    I have joined a Veggie ‘Meet up’ and tonight we have a potluck. Our meet up topic today is our favourite book. I am bringing your book (I have it in hardcover) to promote.
    Keep up the great work! Looking forward to the next podcast…

  • Monique

    Oh shoot! I didn’t realise that the banner ad would benefit you even without buying the book (I already have a copy). Thanks for the tip! Will def go through the banner ad next time.

  • Rojer Freedman Benitez

    This is a great interview with what seem like two down-to-earth guys. I love the part at the end when things get personal. I swear I can envision the one guy holding back a tear as he vows to try to get off his blood pressure meds. I also want to know if the other one got off his statin using the plant powered diet. Personally, I would have liked to get more into their backgrounds but that probably would have doubled the interview time.

    Please do more interviews with plant powered advocates in the trenches like these guys. Inspirational. I hope other schools take note.

  • Anne

    Really enjoyed this interview and I hope this story inspires other schools to change their lunch menus. I’m going to try the food tasting activity with my nephew and see if I can get him to try something new.

    The comment below that people reacted negatively to the media story is disturbing. How could providing young children access to healthy food options, instead of over processed junk food, be a negative?????

    Thanks for including the link to the Woolly Pocket. I may finally have a solution to my limited garden space and I ordered one this morning.

  • Maryann

    Amazing! I had to explain to the food service director in our town that a salad with meat on it was not vegetarian, nor did peeling pepperoni off pizza make it vegetarian. To his credit, he offered to have special salads made for my daughter, and made sure there was always plain cheese pizza for my son. He also got rid of the deep fryers in the schools, so he means well.

  • Wendy

    Great interview. Has Michelle Obama listened to this? I think she should. The kids of this school are pioneers… hopefully the beginning of important and necessary change for our society.

  • Lindsay

    Thanks so much for this interview. It is so important to begin creating a real 21st Century education for all of our students, and part of that is to ensure children are being taught to take care of their minds and their bodies through nutritious food. As a former teacher, I wouldn’t have touched the cafeteria lunch meat with a ten foot pole. It always bothered me that we served our kids horribly unhealthy food. It’s nice to see these educators actually taking action and coming up with a solution!

  • Maggie

    What an amazing and inspiring program. Thanks for sharing it Rich. It’s inspired me to do more at my kids’ school!

  • Bryan

    Awesome interview. Its great to find out that there is a health conscious movement on the rise in our public schools.

  • Dirko

    Hi Rich, this is an absolut thrilling example to start changing a seeming unchangable system. Thank you for presenting this guys. Also European schools could definitely learn from it!