January is Healthy Living Month here at Repair the World. Stop by all month long for interviews with our favorite health-focused organizations, inspiring stories, and tips to change your life while changing the world.

Walk down the lunch line at an average public school today and you will find plenty to eat – unfortunately, many of the options, especially for the “protein” component, are not particularly healthy. But thanks to organizations like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, that is starting to change.

Since 2004, the Coalition has worked to foster healthier school food options for students in New York State and across the country. Their Executive Director, Amie Hamlin, recently talked with Repair the World about how she ended up becoming a champion of healthy school eating, the importance of offering plant-based foods at schools, and the country’s first-ever vegetarian public school.

How did the Coalition get started?
I attended a workshop at Vegetarian SummerFest about changing school food. I had previous experience getting plant-based entrees into schools because I had helped implement policies at my step son’s elementary school through the PTA, and I had experience working with elected officials. So I wrote a resolution for the New York State legislature, and it passed unanimously. Then a group of concerned individuals formed this non-profit in 2004 to help carry out the recommendations included in the resolution.

What do you mean by plant-based entrees?
The average school lunch is centered around meat and cheese, which are full of cholesterol and fat. Beans and tofu can count as a protein however, so that’s what we focus on. For a long time, tofu was not counted as an official protein, it was counted as a vegetable! But as of the fall of 2012 that has changed. Beans have always counted as a protein, and they are unique because they also count as a vegetable.

We want students to have healthier options. Our Cool School Program consists of working with schools to incorporate plant-based entrees. In New York City, our partner schools use their alternative lunch menu that eliminates beef, pork, and processed things like chicken nuggets and mozzarella sticks. Some examples of entrees served on an alternative menu at our NYC partner schools include chickpea Italiano over pasta or rice, falafel with homemade dressing, vegetarian chili, roasted organic tofu with cacciatore sauce, chickpeas with tomatillos, and tofu with sweet curry sauce. In Ithaca, our Cool School Food program consists of developing international recipes like Rajma from India (kidney beans and yellow rice), North African Red Lentils with whole wheat cous cous, Pasta Fazool, Beanie Burgers, and Hummus.

How many schools do you work with in New York City?
There are about 1,200 cafeterias in New York City. Right now, the alternative lunch menu is offered in 24 schools that we partner with, and a number of other schools as well, and recently one of our partner schools in New York became the first vegetarian public school in the country, as a result of our work with them. We also work with additional schools in other ways, so the total number of schools we work with in New York City is close to 30.

What are some other programs that you’re proud of?
We created a resourced called the Wellness Wakeup Call, which transforms nutrition education into easy-to-digest sound bites that get read over school loudspeakers in the morning. We hired 3 registered dietitians to help us create them, and each month is on a different topic. They are heard by over 100,000 students around the country every day.

We also created a family and consumer sciences curriculum. It has 7-8 recipes for things like lentil soup, smoothies, oatmeal, and sushi. Often in consumer science classes, which is what used to be called home economics, students would make things like brownies and rice krispie treats. But we piloted this program at a school on Long Island and it went over very well. We have presented the program at several Family and Consumer Sciences conference and teachers are very excited about it.

We also teach a curriculum called Food Unearthed, which is currently being taught to over 500 students across 5 schools in New York City. It is still in development, but the idea is to teach students to be detectives and critical thinkers when it comes to food. They learn about nutrition, media literacy, and food politics. A lot of teachers also tell us that they learn so much through the curriculums. We make green smoothies as part of the Food Unearthed program, and one teacher told us that she makes them all the time now for her family and herself.

Can you give a sense of some of the impact your programs have had?
In everything we do, we work to reach the whole family and not just the students. A few times a year we host a family dinner night for students and anyone in their household. The evening includes a free dinner, hands-on learning activities, and a cooking demo. I remember this one mother came and one of the activities was about sugar in soda. She had no idea that there was so much sugar, or that if you drank a soda or two each day it could be responsible for weight gain. She ended up giving up soda after that and losing 15 pounds!

It takes a lot of support from the administration to really change school culture around food. Our vegetarian school is a clear example of how much can happen when everyone is on board with the mission of having healthy kids.

Amie Hamlin demonstrating how to make a green smoothie. Photo via peaches-and-greens.com.

Amie Hamlin demonstrating how to make a green smoothie. Photo via peaches-and-greens.com.

What are your thoughts about the future of the healthy school food movement?
Well, I was at a meeting for the US Dietary Guidelines committee last week – these are the guidelines schools follow when creating school lunches. Of the 53 speakers, about 15-18 were talking about healthy, whole foods. The rest of the speakers were representatives from the food industry. So you had the sugar people saying kids should eat more sugar because it tastes good and you can get kids to eat healthier foods if they have sugar in them. And you had the people from a major fast food restaurant saying how they serve sliced apples with every children’s meal and serve millions of pounds of veggies each year. But there’s no context – those vegetables include French fries and iceberg lettuce, and how many millions of pounds of hamburgers do they sell?

So, there is still a lot of work to do and we have a ways to go, but things are moving in the right direction. There were a lot of improvements in the 2010 dietary guidelines. For example, they changed the “meat” group to the “protein” group, which includes beans, nuts, and seeds. And the guidelines now say that half the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, another quarter with grains, and that optionally the protein category can be all plant-based. New York City and the Ithaca School districts are doing a good job and are far ahead of a lot of school districts. I have hope that healthy food will ultimately be the default in our society when what we actually know about food and health triumphs over industry influence and marketing.