In Jersey City, a preschool serves up tofu, squash risotto; ‘cool factor’
JERSEY CITY, N.J.—At the Scandinavian School of Jersey City, the children don’t have cupcakes at birthday parties, but there is plenty of fruit salad. Instead of meat, eggs and dairy for the 1- to 6-year-olds, there is kale from the preschool’s garden and cashew milk made from scratch.
This sought-after school in an increasingly hip city is unusually committed to the goal of getting children to eat their vegetables. The Scandi School, as it is called, is one of the few vegan preschools in the country.
The school didn’t start out with such a specific diet. But when two children being raised vegan enrolled four years ago, school director Maria Germerud-Sharp didn’t want them to feel left out at meals, so she banned what they couldn’t have.
“One of the core values of the school is building community,” she said. “We all eat together.”
This is a gentle place where 92 children play barefoot to feel a connection to their environment and the air often smells like peppermint or citrus from aromatherapy. Classrooms have bowls of pine cones, seashells and rocks for toys. Some chairs are sawed-off tree stumps.
Children learn a lot from their peers.
Lucy Schapiro, who asked for leftover miso soup on a recent day, picked up a white cube from her bowl with her fingers and squished it.
“I don’t like these cheese things,” she said.
“They’re not cheese,” said her classmate, Aris Morales-Lundgren. “They’re tofu.”
Ms. Germerud-Sharp, a former au pair from Sweden, started the school five years ago when she couldn’t find one she liked for her own daughter. Many of its parents have international backgrounds and embrace its devotion to unstructured play, creativity and the outdoors.
Some resisted the vegan menu when it was announced but then converted as their children got used to it. “I complained about the kids not eating,” said Chiara Opiparo, whose sons ages 2 and 4 attend. “That’s when I started tasting the food myself, and it was so amazing.”
Other parents aren’t quite there yet. As one mom put it, “Celery soup today for lunch? Chicken nuggets for dinner!”
The organic menu—with a bare minimum of sugar and salt—includes homemade root vegetable gratin, butternut squash risotto and broccoli salad. The chef on site bakes fresh bread every day.
Karen Jacobson-Sive, a self-described foodie whose son attended, was attracted by the “cool factor.”
“They make their own almond milk,” she said. “It shows a level of dedication to the kids’ well being that I would assume would be seen in other parts of the way the school runs.”
Annual tuition is $18,500 for full-time students. Every year the school hosts a “tasting” with a nutritionist to reassure parents that their children get enough calories and nutrients. Many are omnivores at home.
Some experts question whether purely vegan diets are healthy for such young children.
“This is a very complicated and emotionally charged issue,” said Sharon Akabas, an associate director for education initiatives at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition. There are “a lot of feelings and too little data” about long-term effects.
Dr. Akabas said parents need to make sure vegan children are getting enough iron, calcium and vitamins D and B12. Then again, she said, its students might well be eating better than peers at places that pile on sugary juice and pretzels.
Eugene Dinkevich, director of the division of general pediatrics at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said he is extra careful to check that young vegan patients are growing properly. “While I don’t see anything particularly wrong with a vegan preschool, I surveyed my colleagues in the practice and none of them seem particularly enthusiastic about it,” he said by email. “They agreed that if parents want this and child is growing well, there is no problem.”
Other vegan preschools have their own twists. In Calabasas, Calif., the MUSE School was co-founded by Suzy Amis Cameron, an environmentalist whose husband, James, directed “Titanic.” It has a “plant-based” lunch program to teach its students to reduce their water and carbon footprint.
New Day School in Portland, Ore., bans what it calls “static foods” such as garlic and onions, which its director said “aggravate the calmness of the mind.” The school touts a “Neo-Humanistic curriculum” that blends yoga, meditation and sustainable practices.
Back in Jersey City’s Scandi School, children sitting down for lunch displayed a range of sophistication in their palates. Several served themselves from a heaping plate of spinach-mushroom lasagna.
2016 by Leslie Brody
Photo Credit: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal