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Changing Nutrition Education in Elementary Schools

My name is Amie Hamlin and I am the executive director and co-founder of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Lunches, Inc. However, because our organization does work with schools around the country and focuses on more than only lunches, we do business as the Coalition for Healthy School Food (CHSF). Our organization was founded in 2004 after I wrote a legislative resolution in New York State asking that schools serve a healthy plant-based entrée each day for school lunches and also teach plant-based nutrition education. A resolution is not a law, but it gets introduced and voted on the same way a law does, and our resolution passed unanimously in both the Assembly and Senate. And even though they are not laws, resolutions like ours do serve an important educational purpose. In our case, the resolution laid out the reasons why the request for healthy plant-based food in schools was important, especially when provided as an option for the main dish.

We have successfully helped school districts around the country, and we regularly communicate with all of the school food service directors in more than 30 states. In New York, we have ongoing formal partnerships with both New York City and Ithaca, NY schools. In New York City, we brought the top 20 executives from the Office of Food & Nutrition Services (OFNS) to hear T. Colin Campbell, PhD, talk at Montifiore Hospital when he was giving a cardiac medical grand rounds there organized by Rob Ostfeld, MD. After Dr. Campbell’s presentation, we were able to use a meeting room to have him meet with the 20 executives for an hour. The Center for Nutrition Studies donated 20 Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Courses so that each of them could take the course.

I cannot even express the joy my board of directors and I felt on that day. We felt like the event was something truly historic, and in fact, it was. This was an amazing way to lay the groundwork with OFNS, which we have worked with ever since. In 2012, we requested that the OFNS create a vegetarian menu that schools could opt in to. Of course, we wished it would have been 100% plant-based, but even just securing a vegetarian menu was historic—it was the first public school district in the country to offer a vegetarian menu that schools could opt in to. Four schools adopted the menu with our help; meanwhile, we also turned our focus to getting the 1,800+ NYC schools to offer more plant-based choices.

Plant-Based Kids Nutrition

We asked that schools offer hummus every day as a main dish, and that was implemented. We held Family Dinner Nights with vegan meals for students and their families for up to 200 people. Each dinner was accompanied by a doctor or dietitian giving a talk about plant-based eating and disease prevention or reversal. The children also had a physical activity and learning component, so they would come back hungry and ready to eat. For another exciting event, we had Michael Greger, MD, come to speak to 500 top administrators and management of OFNS in a packed school auditorium! We have done much more, but this is just a sampling.

Vegan Fridays, which has just been renamed Plant Powered Fridays, is one of our biggest accomplishments. We laid the groundwork for this over the past 15 years through our partnership with the OFNS and also, over the past six years, with Eric Adams, former Brooklyn Borough President and current mayor. We requested a vegan day in all 1,800 schools just before the pandemic began; once Mayor Adams came into office, and once the pandemic began easing up, this initiative was put into place. We continue to work closely with the Mayor’s office and OFNS to advocate for, promote, and improve the program.

There is an abundance of interest in our work—so much so that sometimes we can’t keep up with the demand. All the pieces are in place for change; the only thing we need to accomplish it is additional support so we can expand our programming.

We are so grateful for the friendship and support of the Center for Nutrition Studies. With the grant we received, we are working on updating our “Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food” curriculum, a Pre-K to Grade 2 curriculum that teaches children about food with engaging lessons and a snack each week. Our curriculum goes far beyond the typical school nutrition education. It’s not just, “eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy.” Instead, children learn to think about where their food comes from—plants and animals—and to eat less (or no) animals while increasing plant consumption. They learn that there are many reasons for doing so, not just nutrition. We’ve been piloting this curriculum for a few years, and the grant will allow us to work with an experienced curriculum writer to update some of the lessons and activities to improve on what has and has not worked. Once we complete the curriculum, we will offer a webinar to teachers around the country wishing to use it in their classrooms.

I feel so fortunate to be able to do this work. I am deeply passionate about it, and I love spending my days getting healthy food on school menus, providing educational programming and resources to help bust the many nutrition myths, and providing children, families, and the whole school community with facts about how a plant-based diet benefits our health, the environment, and the many social justice issues related to our food choices.

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