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Plant-based lunch options roll out in Manatee school cafeterias

Two high schools and three middle schools offer Impossible Burgers and plant-based nuggets.

Fruits, veggies, milk, a bread roll and plant-based nuggets make a complete meal.
Fruits, veggies, milk, a bread roll and plant-based nuggets make a complete meal.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Delaney Arnold, a Dr. Mona Jain Middle School eighth grader, picked up a tray in the cafeteria and looked at her options. 

She could choose from burgers, chicken sandwiches, pizza, salad, wraps, and more. 

But Arnold decided to pick one of the food service’s newest options — planted-based chicken nuggets. 

“I’m more of a nugget person,” Arnold said. “They’re good and taste exactly the same as regular nuggets.”

The plant-based chicken nuggets is one of two plant-based options that are new to the menu at not only Mona Jain Middle but also R. Dan Nolan and Buffalo Creek middle schools and Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and Parrish Community high schools. 

Dr. Mona Jain Middle School eighth grader Delaney Arnold says her favorite choice is the plant-based nuggets. "They're really good and taste exactly the same as regular chicken nuggets," she says.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Skye Grundy, a registered dietitian and supervisor of student nutrition for the School District of Manatee County, said food services is working to ensure they’re meeting the wants and needs of students, which includes staying up-to-date on trends. 

As more people were hearing about the “Impossible Burger” starting in 2019, Grundy and the food services department saw it as an opportunity to try something new. The Impossible Burger is a plant-based alternative to a hamburger. 

Grundy said the district wanted to incorporate plant-based food options in the cafeteria before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic caused the food service department to pause the rollout of new food options. 

Last year, food services decided to have a pop-up tasting event at Lakewood Ranch High School in which students could try plant-based foods including an Impossible Burger, nuggets and a black bean burger.

“The kids were excited and wanted to have their voices heard,” Grundy said. “Some of them had never tried a plant-based item, so it was a good opportunity to let them try something new and different. It’s always nice when you can create excitement.”

After receiving positive feedback from students, the district decided to provide plant-based options to select schools this school year as a trial run. The district serves Impossible Burgers, nuggets and a bean and chili burrito.

“Vegan is not a huge request or demand across the district,” Grundy said. “It’s very pocketed and not in huge groups anywhere. It’s truly about making sure we have some choices for all of our students to be able to participate in our program and feel welcome in the cafeteria.”

The schools chosen were based on requests already made for plant-based options at the school, Grundy said. She said it’s better to start with a few schools to see the response before providing it to all schools. If a student is vegan, Grundy said the student’s parents can notify the cafeteria manager at the school to provide vegan options if they aren’t already available.

Foods services will take the rest of the school year to look at how many students are purchasing plant-based options for lunch and determine future availability of the items in cafeterias.

Grundy said the plant-based nuggets are the most popular out of the plant-based options.

Dr. Mona Jain Middle School eighth grader Jody Aguilera tries an Impossible Burger for the first time. "I can't tell the difference if it's a real burger or the Impossible Burger," he says.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Interest in the plant-based options has grown throughout the school year as more students have become aware of its availability in their cafeterias.

Ginger Thomas, the cafeteria manager at Mona Jain Middle, passed out samples of the impossible burger and plant-based nuggets during lunch Jan. 19.

Marketing is key when it comes to having students be willing to try something new like a plant-based food item or be willing to buy it for lunch. Grundy said students didn’t know what a vegan burger was, but once they knew it as the Impossible Burger, they knew it was plant-based. She said students also are less likely to pick a plant-based option if it says “vegan” because students think if they’re not vegan, the food is not for them. 

Mona Jain Middle eighth grader Aashay Patel tried the plant-based nuggets and said he enjoyed them. He said they were crunchy and didn’t carry much flavor but a sauce paired with them would be perfect. 

Eighth grader Jody Aguilera tried the Impossible Burger and said he couldn’t tell the difference between the plant-based option and a beef burger. 



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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