Fueling Our Next Generation with Amie Hamlin

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Amie Hamlin is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Healthy School Food. Her efforts are focused on the noble cause of helping young people have access to plant-based foods each day in school. Amie, her team and her allies are working to maximize the short and long-term health of students’ bodies and minds so that they are given the best chance to achieve their full potential.

In this discussion Amie highlights their progress and the challenges that remain to getting plant-based options on school menus. She also offers valuable insight geared towards school administrators in a position to offer a healthier learning environment to their students.

Let’s be real… Today’s students just happen to be the generation that is going to combine intellect and creativity to solve all of the world’s problems they inherited – the least we can do is fuel them with food that is worthy of such a task!

How did you first get involved in the effort to bring healthier food to schools?

Amie: When my stepson was in elementary school, my friend (whose son was in the same school) and I decided to join the PTA and form a nutrition committee. We were successful in getting plant-based options on the menu every day, and that was back in 2000. Then, this same friend and I attended a session on the topic of school food at Vegan Summerfest. We were the only two to attend. And after that the presenter called me to ask if I would volunteer to help get a resolution introduced and passed in New York State to promote plant-based foods in schools. A resolution is  a recommendation, not a law, but it is voted on as if it is a law. She ended up hiring me, I wrote the resolution, and it passed unanimously. One of the other people who funded this work and I decided that now we needed to start a non-profit to implement the recommendations of the resolution.

Tell us about the Coalition for Healthy School Food and what would you consider the primary objectives of the organization?

The Coalition for Healthy School Food (CHSF) is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools to educate the whole school community about the health, environmental, and social justice issues of our food choices. Ultimately, our objective is that all schools should be offering healthy plant-based options every day and reducing and eliminating animal products from the menu. We want students, parents, teachers, food service personnel to understand not only plant-based nutrition, but the impact of our food choices on the environment and on animal suffering. In addition, we want them to understand about the food industry, how food is made to be addictive, and food politics.

How do you see the atmosphere around school food changing as plant-based eating becomes more and more widespread? Is it becoming any easier to push for change/what are your biggest obstacles?

We do see a lot of progress. We were successful in getting the New York City Office of Food and Nutrition Services to develop and offer a vegetarian menu, and we helped the first public (non-charter) school in the country to go vegetarian. We have helped four schools adopt the menu. It has too much cheese on it and we are always working to get more plant-based options on the menu, but we have learned that change does take time, realistically.

On the vegetarian menu, plant-based options are offered ¼ to 1/3 of the time. That is not enough and we will continue to advocate for a fully plant-based vegetarian menu (by federal law, milk must be offered, but there is no requirement that meat, cheese, or eggs be offered). More and more schools are open to offering plant-based entrée options, however if they are to be successful all adults – administrators, principals, teachers, teacher assistants who often accompany students to the cafeteria and oversee the meal times, and the food service personnel – need to be on board.

You have a fundraising gala coming up next month – can you tell us about the event and what people can do to support your efforts?

We are always so excited about our gala. It’s a vegan food tasting event with 25 different food vendors (restaurants, caterers, chefs), a vegan wine and cheese (vegan) room and this year it includes a comedy show. The date is Thursday, September 26 at the New York Academy of Medicine in NYC. Overall, it’s just a really good time with lots of vegan food where we celebrate our accomplishments.

We are still accepting corporate sponsors and food vendors. If you are interested, want to purchase tickets,  learn more, or to make a donation, see more about the event at www.healthyschoolfood.org/gala. Advance ticket purchase required.

What advice do you have for school administrators and decision makers when it comes to providing food options that will fuel their students most effectively?

Our focus is on international foods, including beans and lentils! That takes the focus off meat and cheese and helps children to learn about the different cultures represented. If the adults really want the kids to be impacted, they need to create a culture of health and a lot of learning opportunities. These can consist of taste testing in the lunch line, in or after school cooking classes, our Wellness Wake-up Call program (nutrition education read over the public address system), and Feel Good Food Cards, to learn about individual foods and categories of plant foods. They can take chocolate milk off the menu, and ask for some taste testing events where students get to determine what will be added to the menu.

Administrators should want kids to eat healthy – it very much affects their bottom line:

  1. Students who eat healthy have stronger immune systems, and therefore are sick less often and in school more – ready to learn.
  2. Students who eat healthy are better able to concentrate, and therefore do better in school.
  3. Students who eat healthy cause less behavioral disruptions.

Eating healthy plant-based foods helps students do their best in school and it’s better for our planet and the other animals who live here.

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