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Remove beef from school cafeterias? Not so fast, says this mom and registered dietician

By Nicole Rodriguez RDN, NASM — April 22, 2022 4 min read
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Nicole Rodriguez Holding Ground Beef

I’m a registered dietitian, personal trainer, Girl Scout Troop leader, wife, business owner and mother to a seven-year-old daughter. Food and fitness have been my two greatest loves for as long as I can remember. Grocery shopping (on a tight budget) with my health-conscious mom and picking tomatoes in my grandmother’s garden are some of my fondest childhood memories. I have no transformation story to share – just a healthy attitude toward eating and a passion for making the connection between farm (and ranch) to fork—whether it’s for my clients, my social media community, for myself or for my daughter.

I believe there are no “good” and “bad” foods and that everyone is entitled to eat nutritious and fulfilling foods.

It’s exactly these beliefs, and my commitment to raising children to have healthy diets and healthy relationships with foods, that spark deep concern when I hear about schools removing meat from school lunch menus. Most recently, and perhaps most famously, this happened in New York City, when the mayor announced “Vegan Fridays,” as an add-on to the already-implemented “Meatless Mondays.”

I think it’s important that I set the stage of who is being impacted. The New York City School District includes the poorest congressional district in the entire nation.⁶ ⁷ This means that children in the South Bronx, many of whom are highly dependent on school nutrition as their primary source of nutrition, are being impacted. Having worked and volunteered with numerous nutrition services in this area, I have interacted with these children directly and know the burden this type of restriction puts on them and their families. Many do not have access to nutritious meals at home so it’s even more critical that their school lunches provide them with enough nutrients to support their growing brains and bodies.¹ ² ³ According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), adolescents of all socioeconomic backgrounds are often under-consuming a constellation of nutrients found in beef, such as high-quality protein, iron, zinc, choline and vitamins B6 and B12.⁵ These children are at an even higher risk.

As a registered dietitian, I find people are surprised to learn that not all proteins are created equal. Animal proteins are what’s called a complete protein. That means beef is a natural source of all nine essential amino acids, which is difficult to replace with plant-based alternatives alone without consuming a much greater amount of calories. For example, to get enough protein from chickpeas, you’d have to eat three cups of them in comparison to just 3 ounces of meat, such as beef.⁸ That’s why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) has recognized the power of animal protein on growing bodies, and now recommends meat like beef as an important food for children.⁵

Simply put, the nutrient profile is not the same between foods like beef and plant-based alternatives. And in many cases, by swapping meat, we’re adding more sodium and/or more fat.⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹ We’re trading something that is wholesome, and that kids generally enjoy eating, for something that has fewer nutrients.

By this point you may be wondering if my dinner plates are stacked with meat. The answer is no. In fact, I plan my meals around vegetables. Veggies are the star of my show, but protein is the necessary supporting cast. It’s what gives me the energy to make use of the veggies I eat, and ensure my body is empowered to work and take care of my family. The same is true for my daughter—veggies are an important component of her meals, but protein like beef is what gives her the energy to learn, play and grow.

New York City can be viewed as an example because it’s such a large school system. I’m hopeful that other districts prioritize the nutritional needs of their students. Many children come from homes that are food insecure, so it’s important we’re not making that worse. Kids should be able to go to school and know that they’ll receive both an education and a meal they can count on. As a dietitian, I know that this can include a balance of animal proteins and whatever vegetables are available. Those two food groups should really be the anchor of the school lunch plate.

When children don’t consume enough protein and nutrients, their academic performance can be impacted. We all know that a lack of nutrients is bad for a growing body, but hunger also has a negative impact on learning. Not only is it hard to focus when hungry, the key nutrients found in beef— like protein, zinc, iron and vitamins B6 and B12—play an important role in neurocognitive development, and deficiencies in any of these during early life can lead to long-term negative consequences like obesity, diabetes, anemia and more.⁴

As a nutritionist, this is concerning. As a parent, this is devastating. These kids are losing out on important nutrients they need to grow not once, but twice a week.

I know that administrators and teachers take educating our children very seriously. It’s important to remember this extends beyond the classroom. What kids eat in the school cafeteria shapes their education, their health and their relationship with food throughout their lives. To truly set the next generation up for success, we need to make sure that the decisions we make about their food are grounded in science and well-established nutritional needs for youth.

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1. Gow ML, Ho M, Burrows TL, Baur LA, Stewart L, Hutchesson MJ, Cowell CT, Collins CE, Garnett SP. Impact of dietary macronutrient distribution on BMI and cardiometabolic outcomes in overweight and obese children and adolescents: a systematic review. Nutr Rev 2014;72(7):453-70. 

2. Hermoso M, Vucic V, Vollhardt C, Arsic A, Roman-Vinas B, Iglesia-Altaba I, Gurinovic M, Koletzko B. The effect of iron on cognitive development and function in infants, children and adolescents: a systematic review. Ann Nutr Metab 2011;59(2-4):154-65. 

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4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook. 7th ed. Elk Grove, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014. 

5. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at



8. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Nutrient Data Laboratory. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Legacy. Version Current: April 2018. Internet: /nea/bhnrc/ndl

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11. (Accessed 5/11/2021, reformulation 3.0)