Jan 9, 2006

Logan students satisfy vegan cravings

UNION CITY For years Seema Rupani, a slender long-haired high school senior, has carried her own lunch to school. As a strict vegetarian who later became a vegan, cutting out all dairy and other animal byproducts from her diet, there wasn't much if anything she could eat from James Logan High School's cafeteria.

Students line up to buy vegan food from the student-run lunch cart. (Bea Ahbeck - Staff)

But Rupani and other members of the Youth Humane Society student club hope to change that. They envision a high school cafeteria where students choose between bulgur and burgers, soup and salami, and beans and burritos, where the line for natural fruit juice, nuts and vegan soups stretches as long as the queue for pepperoni pizza.

"Something I've been wanting to do for a really long time is get healthy and vegan foods available," said Rupani, the club president. "Why shouldn't we be a leader in our district (when it comes to) healthier options?"

After six months of heavy lobbying, Rupani and her club mates convinced school administrators that healthy food not only belonged in the lunch line, but that students would buy it if given the chance. Now, they are proving their point.

Since school resumed this month after winter vacation, Rupani and other club members have hawked soy milk, fresh fruit and vegan burgers from a small stand they call the Smart Cart, strategically positioned outside the school cafeteria in Colt Courtyard.

Minutes after the lunch bell rang, Stephanie Ly and about two dozen other students waited in line. Ly normally brings her lunch from home because the lunchroom food is "kind of greasy," she said, making a face. She was going to make her second purchase from the cart in three days.

"Most people still eat junk food around here," she said. "I myself like healthy food better."

JAMES LOGAN HIGH SCHOOL student Nathaniel Nguyen stocks a cart with water, fruit juice and vegan foods such as soup, salads and nuts. (Bea Ahbeck - Staff)

The positive reception from students and teachers at the school hasn't surprised club members, but it did stun Elsie Szeto, New Haven's director of food and nutrition services. Her department stocks the Smart Cart with healthy items each day but decided to start out small, in case the project flopped. When the cart sold out in less than 10 minutes on the first day, Szeto said she realized there was a market for healthy food at Logan.

"I'll be honest I'm flabbergasted," she said. "These kids are buying chocolate soy milk. ... I would never suspect young adults or high school kids would buy soy milk." The students will continue to sell food through Friday. The most popular items then will be incorporated into the regular lunch line at Logan, Szeto said.

Healthy-minded students conceded they probably are a minority among the more than 4,000 students at Logan, but say they are thrilled to have more vegetarian options on campus. Even if they aren't converting legions of fast-food junkies yet, it appears their efforts are having some influence on the student body at large.

Senior Anthony Bennett chomped contentedly on his slice of pizza, the hood of his gray sweat shirt pulled over his head, until he spotted the vegan cart.

"This is bad. This is really bad," he said. "I'm eating pizza by the Smart Cart."

Staff writer Grace Rauh covers education for The Argus. She can be reached at (510) 353-7010 or [email protected].

Senior Vanessa Magat fills a bowl with tomato soup. (Bea Ahbeck - Staff)