Nurturing Healthy School Food

Growing up in the seventies under the canopy of smog in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, I hated to go outside, and spent most days feeling like a movement-deprived slug, eating lots of burgers, steaks and French fries. I write about that, and my high school cruising days down Van Nuys Boulevard, in my upcoming book—stay tuned!

My fondest childhood memories include the mouth-watering aroma of my absolute favorite treat–the huge, soft-chocolate sugar cookie served at all of the L.A. Unified schools then. There was nothing better than savoring that enormous sugar bomb with little nibbles to make it last. Does anyone else remember those addictive beauties? Nowadays I couldn’t choke down one of those choco-addictions, as my system is more used to the natural sweetness of fruits rather than the isolated sugar-treats that school food trained my tongue for.

Today I’m thrilled to learn that the LAUSD is taking the lead on adding healthy school food options, with vegan dishes now offered in seven high schools, including North Hollywood High, a few miles from my very own Grant High School. New options include tasty bean dishes like chili and tamales, and meat substitutes for sausage; and California fruit.

The push to add healthy options in schools is not new, kick-started years ago by Michelle Obama’s campaigns targeting kids with her “Let’s Move” and “Hunger-Free Kids Act”. Today there are many programs, including New York State’s successful Coalition for Healthy School Food led by Amie Hamlin, which is transforming how schools feed kids. They helped New York City get the first three public vegetarian schools up and running in the country, including Active Learning Elementary School . Muse school in Calabasas, California is now vegan, and there are many others adding healthier fruit and vegetable options to the menu all over the country.

School meals are usually based on animal foods, the most energy-intensive, wasteful, and polluting foods we grow. Producing them creates more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant grown directly for humans. School meals also rely a great deal on processed foods, to cut down on lunch lady labor and to consolidate preparation. We need to upgrade this system to include fresh local produce wherever possible, particularly in areas with surpluses and seconds, like California’s agricultural food basket.

Dietary patterns based on whole plant foods such as beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables have the smallest environmental impact and the biggest nutritional bang for the buck. This is what we need to teach our kids at school. Transforming our school food programs is going a long way towards preparing the next generation to address climate change as well as their future health.

I echo Amie’s call to action: “Get involved with your local school system to encourage foods that are healthy and local!”