Chinese authorities have ordered a kindergarten in southwestern China to give up its vegetarian diet for children following a controversy online that it could lead to nutritional deficiency. The kindergarten, named Deyin School in Chengdu city, has broken national and local regulations on meals for preschool children by avoiding animal-based foods, the Hong-Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted the local education bureau as saying on Wednesday.
The school provided milk and eggs, but no other animal-derived foods such as meat and fish which is against the government’s nutrition guidelines for schools, the bureau said in a statement.
It has been ordered to improve its eating plan and to make it more balanced, it said.
The intervention by the bureau came after the kindergarten, where 49 children are enrolled, received fierce criticism online for promoting a vegetarian diet for students and linking it to Confucianism.
The vegetarian diet generated the controversy on WeChat: "Great. There’s Such a Complete Vegetarian Kindergarten in Chengdu” last week.
Kindergarten children at Deyin School were provided milk and eggs but no other animal-derived foods, such as meat and fish, which is against the government’s nutrition guidelines for schools, said the local education bureau.
Many critics expressed concerns about whether the children would obtain essential nutrients, while some pointed out that Confucius had never encouraged people to avoid meat, the Post report said.
"To feed children plant-based foods only is maltreating,” one person said on Weibo. Deyin School has declined requests for comment from the Post.
Yoga and vegetarianism are catching up in China. A number of vegan restaurants sprouted all over the country including capital Beijing.
Educational organisations featuring ancient Chinese classics teaching and vegetarian diets have gained growing popularity in China in recent years amid worries over the loss of traditional culture and a rising rate of childhood obesity.
But despite the worldwide growth in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets many in China remain sceptical that they can provide a healthy and balanced diet.
Zhou Wenwen, an associate professor in food science from Zhejiang University, said the studies around the world have proved that depending solely on food derived from plants can lead to malnutrition.
"The human body needs to get the necessary amino acids and protein from animal-based foods. For children, they are in particularly higher need of such nutrients as they have faster cell metabolism,” she said.
"It’s ok if a kindergarten offers vegetarian meals as part of a balanced diet for the kids after discussing with the parents, as most kids eat at home for at least dinner, where they may have already absorbed enough animal-based foods. But it will certainly cause nutritional deficiency if a child takes a complete vegetarian diet,” she said.
Deyin School is not alone in providing a vegetarian diet. A female staff worker surnamed Zhang from one school called Cheng Jing Ren in Beijing said the school offers vegetarian meals for its students, including children and adults because it is a growing trend.
The organisation only provides foods derived from plants, without milk or eggs, she said, because they are “safer and equally nutrient”.
"If you research you’ll see a big group of vegetarians. The food from animal slaughter, the milk, and the eggs we consume today often contain ingredients we don’t know. It’s safer to eat just foods from plants,” she said, referring to the many food safety scandals such as the melamine-tainted infant milk powder scandal that rocked China in 2008.
"Besides, you can still gain a lot of nutrients from beans and nuts,” she said defending the vegetarian diet.