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Putting Plant-Based Options On The Cafeteria Menu

If you take a close look at your school’s lunch menu this month, you’ll see a few entrees marked with a curious little “v,” such as Black Bean Casserole and North African Gumbo.

The “v” stands for “vegetarian,” and these two options are plant-based meals that have been developed by a non-profit organization, the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, in partnership with the Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood. Under the leadership of its executive director Amie Hamlin, NYCHSF has been actively working with SchoolFood to introduce more plant-based meals into city school cafeterias. Plant-based entrees contain no cholesterol, are low in saturated fat, and are high in fiber, making them an obvious choice in the city’s efforts to curb childhood obesity and improve overall health.

Founded in 2004, NYCHSF is a statewide organization now working in New York City, the southern region of upstate New York, and Long Island. Amie works out of her home in Ithaca, but she is frequently on the road to oversee projects and give presentations around the state. Currently in 18 city schools, Project Cool School Food is NYCHSF’s largest project. Working with Candle Café and Candle 79 Restaurants, the James Beard Foundation, Manhattan’s Food and Finance High School, and Henry’s Restaurant, NYCHSF develops and tests plant-based entrees that students will enjoy. SchoolFood kitchens develop the recipes before introducing them into the Project Cool School Food pilot program and making them available to other schools as well.

Creating recipes is only one aspect of the Project Cool School Food program. It also provides hands-on training for school cooks and educates teachers and students about the health benefits of eating whole-plant foods. “Success very much depends on the culture of the schools,” Amie explains. “Administrators who make wellness a priority have the best success with the highest number of students taking the entrees.” The pilot encourages administrators and teachers to remind students about the special vegetarian dish that is being served that day for lunch. Teachers are also encouraged to hold contests among classes to see which class chooses the plant-based entrees the most.

The DOE’s Office of SchoolFood recognizes that children need to eat more plant-based proteins. In fact, the New York City Wellness Policy states that the city will “offer and promote the inclusion of plant-based entrees” in school lunches. Unfortunately, recent city budget cuts ($27 million cut to the Office of SchoolFood) have cut kitchen staff and dramatically limited the number of hot meal choices children have at lunch, making it more and more difficult for schools to fulfill that mission. “SchoolFood has made so many positive changes, and already operate on a tight budget,” Amie told me. “We’re very sorry to learn that they will experience a $27 million budget cut.”

Budget cuts to the Office of SchoolFood make pilot programs, like NYCHSF’s Project Cool School Food, that much more critical. But, like all non-profits these days, NYCHSF is finding it difficult to raise the funds it needs. The organization has a waiting list of schools to join its program. “All the pieces are in place to be able to create change in schools,” Amie said. “The only thing holding us back is a lack of funding to develop our programs and expand.” Simply put, NYCHSF needs more money. That’s why the group is soliciting donations and selling an album called “Healthy Food For Thought,” featuring Julian Lennon, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Moby, Russell Simmons, and other great artists (the album’s release party is on Friday.)

NYCHSF is perfectly poised to work with the Office of SchoolFood to bring tasty, plant-based meals to more of the city’s children, but in the current budget climate, it’s going to need a lot of support to do so.

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