Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Nina Gonzalez, the hero of the Stafford High chicken nugget rebellion

Nina Gonzalez, who pushed for vegetarian alternatives in the Stafford High cafeteria, at a Healthy School Meals Act briefing.
Nina Gonzalez, who pushed for vegetarian alternatives in the Stafford High cafeteria, at a Healthy School Meals Act briefing. (Chris Quay)
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nina Gonzalez will be remembered for many things when she graduates from Stafford High School in June: Her gorgeous smile, her skill at golf, her work on the school newspaper and literary magazine. But perhaps her most notable contribution has been helping to get vegetarian foods on the lunch line.

Long before Jamie Oliver launched his Food Revolution, Gonzalez, now 18, mounted her own campaign to improve the cafeteria offerings at her Fredericksburg area school.

Gonzalez became a vegetarian in March of her freshman year. "There were not many lunch options available for vegetarians or other people who want to eat healthy," she says. Sophomore year found her sitting with other student athletes, none of them pleased with the pizza and chicken nuggets that were standard lunchroom fare.

"Especially when you came back from nutrition class, you'd think, 'This doesn't look like anything we were taught to eat,' " Gonzalez says. "It was ironic."

Instead of grousing, Gonzalez says she asked herself, "Okay, what can I do?" She started on the front line, talking to the lunch ladies. They commiserated but explained that they had no say in deciding what to serve for lunch. That was the job of the county nutrition director, Chapman Slye. So she looked him up online and made an appointment to speak with him. She was 16.

Before meeting with Slye, the honors student did her homework. She read up on the federal Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (which is up for reauthorization by Congress) and the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and their provisions for school lunches. She checked out what other schools offered and found some that had incorporated vegetarian options and more fruits and vegetables. The idea, Gonzalez says, was to find models for providing more healthful choices for athletes, vegetarians and students who simply wanted to eat better, and to accommodate kids with dietary restrictions such as lactose intolerance.

The big breakthrough came when Gonzalez solicited samples of vegetarian foods from vendors and organized a group of students for a taste-testing session, to which she invited Slye. Her homework and legwork paid off. "In a month, we had a vegetarian option available every day," Gonzalez says. That option -- pita bread with a cheese stick, hummus, vegetables and fruit -- remains popular today, she says. Once a week, there's a meatless entree, and the salad and potato bars have been upgraded and made more appealing. The line for those bars, Gonzalez says, "is always packed."

Slye says he'd tried before to incorporate vegetarian foods into his menus but found it hard to find items that appealed to students and met the strict federal guidelines.

On top of that, he says, "It's more expensive to go healthy." Like most other school-food operations, Slye's program is a self-supporting operation; some of the costs of healthful foods such as whole-wheat pizza crusts, fresh fruit and hummus are passed along in the cost of the meal. Other costs require cutting food options.

But Nina's enthusiasm -- and her taste-test -- prodded him to try again. "She re-energized our momentum," Slye says.

The school has yet to provide an alternative to dairy milk, Gonzalez says, but the other improvements have spread to the whole district, "from Head Start to high school."

"It's a little bit," she says. "But it's a start."

Gonzalez's success led to an appearance on "Good Morning America" in April, and she has spoken before the committee charged with revising the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans and at a Senate briefing about the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, which would reward school systems that offer plant-based food options and healthful non-dairy drinks. She works closely with the D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Nutrition (PCRM), which advocates for vegetarianism and has long pushed to integrate plant-based options into school-lunch programs.

Ruby Lathon, nutrition policy manager for PCRM, thinks Gonzalez is an ideal messenger. "You often hear kids won't eat, don't want healthy food," Lathon says. Gonzalez and her friends, she says, demonstrated just the opposite.

Gonzalez's efforts stand out because they were student-initiated. But similar changes are taking hold, in varying degrees, in school districts across the nation. The D.C. Council earlier this month, for instance, approved strict rules governing healthful school lunches and requiring more time for exercise in the school day.

So what's next for Nina Gonzalez? Come fall, she'll be attending Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania on a golf scholarship, and she plans to shift from being a cheese-eating vegetarian to a vegan. On a recent visit to her new school, she says, "I noted their vegetarian options weren't properly labeled. My first goal when I get there is to work on labeling better and getting more options. It's going to be a fun option."

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