Most parents try everything they can to make sure their kids eat healthy foods while at home, but what about when they’re at school? Considering that it’s one of the three main meals of the day, what your child has for lunch is a major factor in their development, and can have an effect on both their learning and growth. While it may not seem like we have much control over the types of foods and snacks our children have at school (especially if they attend public school), we recently spoke with Amie Hamlin, Executive Director of the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, and learned that quite the opposite is true. We also found out more about the Coalition’s involvement in establishing NYC’s first vegetarian school, and how the kids at that school have been faring academically since the change. Read on for Amie’s tips on what you can do to ensure that your child’s school lunch is as nutritious as what you give them at home, and see an example of how a healthier, plant-based diet even boosted test scores at one school.
Inhabitat: Can you tell us about what Coalition for Healthy School Food does? How did the initiative begin?
Amie Hamlin: We develop, distribute, and get on the menu plant-based recipes for use in schools as the protein component of the meal. We teach curriculum to over 400 students and their teachers each week in New York City, and we develop educational resources to teach students to be critical thinkers about food. We also educate the whole school community, including teachers, administrators, food service staff, and parents.
The initiative began when I was asked to write a New York State legislative resolution (this is a recommendation, not a law, but voted on as if it was a law) in 2004. The resolution asked that there be a plant-based entrée on the menu every day as a healthy option, and that when nutrition education is taught, that it include information about plant-based and ethnic eating patterns. It passed unanimously in the NYS legislature and then we formed a 501c3 non-profit in order to carry out the recommendations of the resolution.
Inhabitat: What advice would you give to busy parents who still want to ensure that their kids are eating healthfully while at school?
Amie Hamlin: While we know that everyone is very busy and operating on overload most of the time, the key to changing how schools feed kids is to get involved. If many parents insist there is no chocolate milk, for example, a principal can decide that no chocolate milk will be served. In New York City, if a principal decides they would like an alternative (or even vegetarian) menu, they can request that. But for the menu to be successful, it truly takes a community to support it – administration, teachers, parents, and the students themselves. Someone has to make sure that there are activities going on to support and encourage consumption of the healthy options on the menu.
Parents can talk to the principal and the teacher about not offering unhealthy snacks in the classroom. If a parent comes to the principal with a group of parents and the principal can see that there is widespread support for the ideas presented, there will be a much easier time creating change.
One of the biggest reasons that students can eat unhealthy food at school is because of parties, bake sales, or too many options in the cafeteria. For example, in some schools (not New York City), students can get chicken nuggets, or bagels with cream cheese, or pizza every day if they don’t like the hot entrée. And some students do eat the same thing every day. As long as there are unhealthy options that are appealing to children, it will be harder to get them to choose healthy options.
Ultimately, if your school does not foster a healthy school food environment, the best way to ensure your child will eat healthfully at school is to send them with their own meal and snacks, and tell them they can’t eat the food at school. Of course this only works up until a certain age.
We want school food to be healthy so that all children, whether they eat healthy at home or not, come to school and have healthy food there. And it would be better to get involved to make sure the food for all children is healthy. Each school is required to offer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The components of the meal that are least healthy are the meat/meat alternate and milk. That’s why we focus on bean and organic tofu based dishes. Many students cannot digest milk – lactose intolerance is actually not a “condition” – it’s the norm. Mammals are supposed to lose the ability to digest their mother’s milk once they are weaned. The fact that 80% of Caucasians can continue to digest it is actually a result of a genetic mutation and is called “lactase persistence.” Most of the rest of the world’s population have very high levels of lactose intolerance. It’s now been shown (see the Harvard School of Public Health’s website) that more milk does not result in less osteoporosis, so while the dairy industry can still say that milk contains calcium, which is true, they no longer say it builds strong bones. The posters in school cafeterias no longer make mention of that – they talk about how milk has protein. The only thing is that most people get 2 or 3 times more protein than they need, and animal protein is associated with many diet-related diseases.
We know that the busiest parents are also the parents who get involved, so please, get involved! You can contact us to find out how.
Inhabitat: Your organization was responsible for launching the all-vegetarian lunch program at PS 244Q in Flushing. Can you tell us more about that program and how it has affected the kids?
Amie Hamlin: The program has been a huge success. BMIs have gone down. Standardized test scores were #11 in the state. All other 10 schools had gifted programs and did not have English language learners. PS244 does not have a gifted program and does have English language learners. The children actually eat healthfully there! Though cheese is still on the menu, our efforts are to promote fully plant-based options that are based on beans and organic tofu. This is the classic story of it takes a village! The New York City Office of School Food, school administration, staff, teachers, parents, and children are all on board. The cook and kitchen staff are all very loving and caring. The cook’s daughter attends the school. Working together does make a big difference.
Inhabitat: Are more schools in NYC interested in going vegetarian for lunch? Do you find that many parents are against this movement or is it generally accepted as being more healthy?
Amie Hamlin: We have several more schools that are interested, including a junior high school and a high school that are just starting up. Both have a big interest in the environment. It’s now known that animal agriculture is one of the largest causes of global warming, resource usage, and pollution. The other two that people can directly have control over are transportation and the size of their homes/appliances, but animal agriculture is a bigger factor than the other two, and the easiest and least expensive to change.
Inhabitat: Children are known for being picky eaters. Do you have any tips on how to get them to like healthy foods like vegetables?
Amie Hamlin: I think as a society, we have forgotten to some extent who the adults are and what their job is. It’s made harder by food industry marketing and pressure from kids (called the “nag factor” by the food industry), not to mention busy parents and a lack of healthy food choices out there in our society. If a child is raised in a household that only serves healthy food, by the time the child goes to school they understand that vegetable, fruit, legume, whole grain, and nut and seed consumption – healthy whole plant foods – makes them feel good. And if they then have the chance to try something not so healthy, they don’t really like it, or even if they do, they quickly realize that they don’t feel as good eating it.
In my home, my daughter’s first afterschool snack, when she is really hungry, is a vegetable. Same at dinner. Many kids never have the opportunity to feel truly hungry because they are eating so much (but the wrong foods) but if they do feel hungry, and vegetables are the only option, over time they will accept them. At the same time, there are a lot of children who do experience hunger and live in food insecure households, so it is all the more important that they get healthy food at schools. When presented with many choices, kids might go for the most calorie dense or processed foods. But when presented with fruits or vegetables, if they are hungry, kids will eat them. We started a fruit and vegetable snack program in Ithaca, NY (now run by another organization). Watch this video and you’ll see what happened when children, a captive audience in their classrooms, had only fruits and vegetables as a snack – and what happened as a result.
A big thank you to Ms. Hamlin for sharing her healthy school food expertise with us, and if you’re interested in getting involved with the Coalition for Healthy School Food, sign up for their email list at www.healthyschoolfood.org to stay connected. You can also contact CHSF by emailing [email protected] or calling 607-272-1154. And don’t forget to attend their fall gala on Friday, October 24th, in NYC. It will be an amazing event with food tastings from many restaurants, organic wine and spirits, and organic juices and waters, jazz music, silent auction, raffle, and gift bags.
Amie will also be one of the panelists at our “How to Green Your School” discussion at the NYC Green Festival on April 26th, so if you have questions about healthy school food, don’t miss your opportunity to speak to her there.