Food for Thought

December 20th, 2013 by Nell Alk

A nonprofit prioritizes nutrition education as essential learning.

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The Responsibility Project

It’s common in our culture to memorize and pass along proverbs and aphorisms, and no less so those pertaining to health and wellness. Who hasn’t heard, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?” Or how about, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat?” These phrases, so widely recited, have all but lost their meaning due to overexposure, frequently eliciting an eye roll from those within earshot. But, what if we treated these sayings with respect, paying them homage and, more importantly, practiced what they preach? (There’s another one!)

Amie Hamlin, of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, does just that. While the executive director of this statewide nonprofit doesn’t get hung up on age-old rhymes, she certainly takes seriously their respective messages. According to Ms. Hamlin, health is wealth. And nowhere, she believes, is it more critical that we instill this line of thinking and shape behavior than at elementary schools, middle schools and high schools across the country. Children are our future, and it’s her stance—based on scientific studies as well as professional observations and personal experiences—that our youth are more apt to achieve academic success when they’re eating nutritiously. And what could be better brain food, her organization reasons, than fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes?

To that end, NYCHSF makes it their mission to educate participating school communities—students, teachers, parents and administrators—about ways in which they can consume more nutritious foods. It does this by developing and disseminating plant-based recipes (to date distributing recipes to over 25,000 schools, including all schools in California) and other valuable resources, some of which Ms. Hamlin discusses in greater detail below.

The Ithaca-based vegan isn’t alone in her assertion that clean, green eating is the way to go. Indeed, the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, formally supports this: “It is [our] position…that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence, and for athletes.”

Given the statistics surrounding incidences of disease in our nation, to say nothing of America’s top two killers (heart disease and cancer), Ms. Hamlin’s fact-based campaign couldn’t come soon enough. The standard American diet (SAD) just doesn’t cut it, and it is her hope that we can as a society turn this ship around and steer today’s students toward vibrant health.

Among NYCHSF’s key initiatives, your Wellness Wakeup Call seems especially clever and effective. Can you share what this is?

It’s nutrition education delivered over the loudspeaker every morning at more than 300 schools across the country. Each month there’s a different theme, featuring 22 unique announcements. It takes 10 to 15 seconds to recite, which is why we dub it, “Nutrition education in easy-to-digest sound bites.” Or, “Nutrition education, one sound bite at a time.” A play on words…

What motivates schools to implement your resources?

Per the USDA, “Each local educational agency that participates in the National School Lunch Program, or other federal Child Nutrition programs, is required by federal law to establish a local school wellness policy for all schools under its jurisdiction.” But, teachers are already overloaded. That’s where we come in. Our Wellness Wakeup Call is a means of satisfying the federal mandate, without additional burden to teachers. Our three-year cycle is free to New York State schools and just $50 per district out of state.

So, who’s the authority responsible for generating content, and what are some subjects covered?

Registered dietitians wrote all of the announcements. Topics include but aren’t limited to: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and foods from around the world (we talk about how different cultures use legumes), allergies, healthy fast foods (healthy things you can eat that are quick), food politics and cooking.

Comprehensive. What else have you got going on?

We’ve hired a certified elementary educator—who visits five schools in NYC each week, leading several classes a day—to teach our curriculum, called Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food. On a weekly basis, roughly 500 kids act as detectives, using critical thinking skills to, as the title implies, uncover the truth about food. We’re basically teaching students how to eat healthier. And, at the end of each lesson, they enjoy a snack—guacamole, green smoothies, homemade trail mix and so on. We try to expose them to as many different delicious and nutritious foods as possible.

How have parents reacted?

In Ithaca, for example, where we began a private version of the USDA’s Fruit & Vegetable Program, mothers would come up to me and hug me because their child now liked vegetables. The program continues today and it’s changed hundreds and hundreds of children, and therefore families. It’s so rewarding. Equally rewarding is when we’re able to get plant-based options on the school lunch menu.

You’ve actually assisted a local school transition to totally vegetarian, right?

That’s right. P.S. 244 in Queens serves only vegetarian food. The school’s founding mission was health and wellness so, in partnership with the school and the New York City Office of SchoolFood, we helped implement a meatless menu. Families were and still are very receptive. And with dishes like Mexicali Bean Chili, Roasted Organic Tofu with Zesty Barbeque Sauce and NYC Falafel, the students love it. For anyone interested, our bean-based recipes are available on our website, while our tofu-based recipes will be available soon.

So, what drives you to do what you do?

Kids go to school to learn, and they can’t achieve their potential if they’re not well nourished. Thus, schools should set the very best example for kids: If kids’ parents feed them healthy meals at home, we don’t want schools undermining that. And, if kids don’t eat healthfully at home, then they certainly should be able to acquire healthy food at school.

I can’t argue with that.

It’s extremely important that every child has access to healthy school meals, which will both help them establish a habit of eating healthfully, as well as acquaint them with how eating this way makes them feel. The latest nutrition guidelines are a step in the right direction, but students can readily—and repeatedly—consume extremely unhealthy meals at school.

Speaking of “the latest nutrition guidelines,” can you touch on MyPlate, given that’s our nation’s dietary roadmap?

Certainly. MyPlate is based on the US Dietary Guidelines. MyPlate recommends that 75 percent of our plate be plant foods, and optionally 100 percent.

With the kids, do you address ethical implications or environmental repercussions at all?

We focus on nutrition, but we’ll share with students the fact that raising animals for food is one of the greatest contributors to global warming. We briefly address suffering by explaining that most animals are raised in “factory farms” (otherwise known as CAFOs), and that this is not a nice life for the animals. 

So, to sum up, what’s the upside? Where do we presently stand?

Take the MyPlate guide: People don’t always discern that our diets should be at least 75 percent plant-based, and the government doesn’t overtly frame it that way, but that’s what’s essentially being conveyed. I’m optimistic that, over time, science will eventually win out over industry pressure.

Nell Alk’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Essential Homme Magazine and Z!NK Magazine, and on RollingStone.com, InterviewMagazine.com and BlackBookMag.com, among other print and online publications. She lives in New York City.