Amie Hamlin of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food

A few months ago, word of New York's first 100% vegetarian school made its way around the internet, vegan communities, and even the nation and world! Amie Hamlin was at the helm of this inspired action–she is the Executive Director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, a coalition of parents and activists who worked with the school to make this a reality. I'm so honored to have had the chance to speak with Amie about school lunch policies, her vegan journey, and of course, that huge milestone her group accomplished.

Allison Rivers Samson: You've been vegan for many years, tell me about your journey to a plant-based diet.

Amie Hamlin: When I was 19 my mother had just taken over as the Director of the local Humane Society. Back then, most of the animals that went in never came out. And when she first got the job, she inherited the most horrendous of ways of killing the animals – a decompression chamber. She immediately went to work to get approval for a more “humane” method. But meanwhile, the animals were killed in a horrendous way and the machine had a window. I don’t know what possessed me to watch but I did watch as a bunch of dogs and cats had the air sucked out of them and died. Watching that I made the connection and realized that when I ate animals, I was causing unnecessary suffering and death. I wanted no part of it. It took me another 10 years to understand how dairy and eggs caused great suffering as well. I learned about it in a Vegetarian Times article by Victoria Moran and started the transition. Very soon after I heard John Robbins speak and realized there was no turning back. I went home and packed up all my leather, wool, silk, and down items and shipped them off to my sisters. I kept two pairs of shoes until I was able to find vegan shoes.

ARS:  I can certainly understand how that would move you to take immediate action. How did you create the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food? Tell us about your fabulous organization!

AH: I was asked to write a legislative resolution for plant-based meals and nutrition education in New York State. Even though it is not a law, resolutions are actually a recommendation – they are voted on. After the resolution passed – unanimously, a dedicated group of parents and activists formed the organization to fulfill the mission of the resolution. Some of the more well-known original board include Joy Pierson, co-owner along with Bart Potenza of Candle Cafe, Mary Max, wife of iconic artist Peter Max, and Brad Goldberg, founder of Animal Welfare Trust.

ARS: That's quite a line-up! What are your best and worst memories of school cafeteria food?

AH: I don’t recall if I liked it or not in elementary school. In high school I remember eating the pizza and thought it was fairly good at the time. But mostly I went out to lunch in junior high and high school, to fast food restaurants. My one specific memory, which is quite funny given that I am a dedicated vegan now – is when I found out, in elementary school, that they added soy to the hamburgers to reduce the cost. I remember feeling cheated that they added soy. Now I wish all the burgers would be a healthy, whole foods, plant-based burgers.

ARS: You and me both, Amie. I was surprised to learn that school food is highly regulated, and oftentimes in ways that are less than beneficial for children. Are some of the regulations actually helping, or are most of them put there by food and agricultural lobbyists?

AH: It’s some of both. Every 5 years the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is renewed, and it regulates school meals, the Women, Infants, and Children’s Program, as well as some other federal feeding programs. It was due to pass in 2009, but due to politics, some claiming that we should not spend tax dollars on children for this purpose, the renewal was put off for a year, and it was renamed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in order to put some positive PR on it to counteract the negative spin that had been created by those who did not feel our nation’s children deserving of a decent meal. They made many improvements, which began to take place in September of 2012, including:

  1. Free water must be offered at meal times.
  2. The cost of “full price” meals must be increased so that the funds intended for meals for students receiving free and reduced price meals are not subsidizing the meals for the students who were paying “full price”. If a school was offering a “full price” meal for $1.50, but reimbursement for the free meal was $2.73, then obviously the money intended for the low income students was subsidizing the meals for the children who were paying.
  3. There are 5 components to the lunch meal. Students only have to take 3. In the past, they could take any 3. Now, one of the three must be a fruit or a vegetable.
  4. The vegetable component now has a requirement for different categories of vegetables. Each week, students must get green vegetables, orange/red vegetables, legumes, starchy, and other at least once. Previously, meals were very heavy on starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas.
  5. Tofu and soy yogurt now counts as a protein! Previously, only peanut butter, beans, lentils, split peas, and certain processed soy products counted as a protein. Nuts and seeds could also count, but only up to 50% of the total. In other words, the protein could be part beans/meat/cheese and part nuts, but not all nuts.

These are all positive improvements, but the food industry still has significant influence, and there are other problems as well:

  • Milk is still required to be offered (not taken.) It would literally take an act of Congress to make it so that milk didn’t have to be offered, by changing the Child Nutrition Act.
  • While a school may provide soymilk with a doctor's or parent's note, they are not required to (because it costs more.)
  • There is no elimination of artificial ingredients: artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or artificial sweeteners.
  • The food industry can make products that meet the calorie, fat, sugar, and sodium restrictions, but that does not mean the food is healthy.
  • There are still foods with high fructose corn syrup and trans fats. As long as the nutrition label says 0 grams of trans fats, they are allowed. What many people don’t know is that the food industry lobbied to say “0” if there are just under ½ gram, in effect they are allowed to round down to “0”. But the World Health Organization says there is no safe level of trans fats in the diet, so even just under half a gram is too much. How do we know if there are trans fats if the label says “0”? Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.
  • There is no requirement for a plant-based protein to be offered every day. Most schools have it in the form of a peanut butter sandwich, but it is not usually a healthy peanut butter sandwich. The peanut butter usually has hydrogenated oils, sugar, and salt added. The jelly often has high fructose corn syrup, and sometimes artificial colors. The bread, even if it is partially whole grain, often has preservatives, dough conditioners, and high fructose corn syrup. We’d like to see a homemade plant-based hot or cold entrée offered daily that has no artificial ingredients.
  • There is not enough time at lunch for students to eat, and this is part of the reason for so much waste.
  • The amount of fruits and vegetables that must be offered is almost double what it was. And while that is good on the surface because students need more of these foods, they don’t have time to eat them, and they may end up in the garbage. They should have created the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program in all schools in the country, and offered these foods as a classroom snack where they are readily eaten. The USDA already has a fresh fruit and vegetable snack program, and it is very popular – and one of the best things the USDA does. But it is limited to a small number of schools in each state because of the limited funding. With all of these extra fruits and vegetables, this program could be in every school!
  • Finally, despite the positive changes, schools are being given only 6 cents more per lunch to make these changes – so it is essentially an unfunded mandate. Schools need much more than that to improve the meals. They also need more to pay and train the kitchen staff, and to have additional staff in order to prepare more fruits and vegetables, cook whole grains, and prepare healthy plant-based entrees.

ARS: With so many enormous problems in this program, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. I know I sure do. What new steps and exciting projects are in the works for the coming year at the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food?

AH: At the end of April of this year (2013) we announced very exciting news – the first public (non-charter) vegetarian school in the country!!! This is a large project we’ve been working on for years. It was all over the media – we were even on the front page of a paper in Taiwan, and talk about a small world, a former volunteer of ours is working on a special organic gardening project there and spotted it, and sent us the web link to it! You can learn more about it on our homepage: www.healthyschoolfood.org. We had a lot of press and have had many schools reach out to us that want to change. As a result, at least one more school will be going vegetarian, and thirty others have signed on for a menu that contains plant-based options. Some vegans have asked why cheese and milk is still offered. Milk must be offered by law – it would take an act of Congress, literally, to change that. If we could show that the majority of the students were choosing a fully plant-based option, then the school would be happy to move more in that direction. But it takes resources and time to work with students and schools on making those changes. Until then we work hard to promote plant-based entrees and have them served as often as we can, and continue to work on developing plant-based recipes for consideration by the New York City Office of School Food and others. We have developed a number of recipes and they have been distributed to nearly 25,000 schools nationwide. As an organization, we only promote plant-based (vegan) options, and it is a very real and meaningful change to have a school go vegetarian with several vegan options per week.

NYC also has an alternative menu which eliminates certain kinds of meat and processed entrees. It includes beans and tofu as well. We are planning to implement this menu in many more schools this coming fall.

This year we piloted our new curriculum: Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food every week with more than 150 students. In the fall we will be teaching it to more than 400 students. This curriculum has a detective theme (Uncovering the Truth About Food) and teaches critical thinking skills. Our certified elementary teacher, Tashya Knight, has done a great job teaching it and working with me and our board member Beth Reed, a teacher, to write the lesson plans.

Other resources we have that are available to anyone, which can be found on our website:

Wellness Wakeup Call – this is available for free to New York State schools and for a one-time fee of $50 to out of state schools. It consists of nutrition education in the form of easy to digest sound bites, written by registered dietitians who specialize in plant-based diets. Each day, a short message is read over the public announcement system during morning announcements. Each month, a copy of the messages goes home with the students and we ask that the parents review the messages with their child, that way the parents learn something too. Wellness Wakeup Call is available in K-5 and 6 – 12 versions. This year, we’ll start to have it translated into some other languages, too! Currently, more than 100,000 students hear the messages each day.

Family and Consumer Sciences Plant-Based Cooking Unit – this is available for free to any school. It is a middle school cooking unit for what some of us used to know as “Home Ec”. This is the class where students actually learn how to cook, and we provide a curriculum, a PowerPoint presentation, and more -  so that a teacher can implement the program.

We also have several educational resources that will be finished and available for use by schools, including an Educational Food Card set that includes 100 different fruits, vegetables, and beans, with 5 interesting facts and pictures of each, by the fall.

In addition, we are working on producing a short movie to show in elementary school assemblies, and that is very exciting!

ARS: Very exciting indeed! You partner with chefs from fabulous restaurants to create recipes to introduce kids to plant-based eating. Is it a challenge for those who are used to creating recipes for up-scale restaurants to make recipes that can be prepared in a school cafeteria and that mainstream children enjoy?

AH: The chefs/owners at Candle Cafe and Moosewood Restaurant have been amazing. They are both adept at working under whatever restrictions they have to. Chefs are artists, and they have proven that they can be very flexible and adjust to a very different environment! Chefs Jorge Pineda and Angel Ramos, along with Joy Pierson, Bart Potenza, and Benay Vynerib from Candle and Chef Wynnie Stein from Moosewood have been critical to the success of our programs.

ARS: What are the criteria that a recipe has to meet to be workable in a school kitchen? Are there minimum nutrition requirements for school food recipes?

AH: There are many requirements! If we are talking about the “protein” component of the meal, there has to be a minimum amount of ounce equivalents of protein, depending on the grade level and what else is served that week. For example, elementary schools require 8 – 10 ounces of protein or protein equivalents each week. If they serve 2 ounces on each of a three day period, equaling 6 ounces, then on the 4th or 5th day they could serve 1 ounce each day. A one ounce equivalent for beans is ¼ cup and for tofu it is 2.2 ounces. But on the other days, if you were serving tofu or beans all week, you’d have to have ½ cup of beans and 4.4 ounces of tofu. Other requirements limit fat, sodium and have calorie minimum and maximums.

ARS: Do you have much one-on-one interaction with students experiencing new-to-them vegan foods? What has been your favorite reaction?

AH: I have so many wonderful interactions with the students trying new vegan foods, and I love when they come asking for 2nds, 3rds, and 4ths, (or more!) That is proof that they really love what they are eating. I’ve had students tell me that they never liked beans but now they do, and the same with tofu. I also have heard several students say that they saw the recipe on the back of the menu and their parent made it at home and they already know that they love the recipe, even before doing a taste testing in school.

In Ithaca, when we introduce the foods, we have had balloons representing the colors of the flag for the culture that the food comes from, music that also represents that culture, the ingredients that are in the recipe for students to see, touch, and smell, and voting ballots. After students taste the food, they can vote, and they get a sticker, pencil, or cute little eraser. Those little tokens have convinced many students to try the food who otherwise wouldn’t have. So it is also a fun when a student says they won’t try something because they know they won’t like it, and I say “are you sure – because if you try it you get to vote and get a sticker” and the next thing you know the student is wanting to try the food and discovers that they actually like it! This scenario has been repeated hundreds of times. In New York City, we may also bring in the ingredients, but it really helps to have a car to lug around all of the promotional items, so we don’t bring music, balloons, and the other items we use in Ithaca.

ARS: How fun! I'm often curious when a parent says their child doesn't like vegetables. I usually ask how often they serve veggies and they shyly admit, "Rarely." I remind them that it's hard to like something we're not regularly exposed to. What's the most surprising thing you've learned through the New York Coalition for Healthy Food?

AH: Two things: First, that changing the way schools feed kids is an incredibly time consuming process and it is not as easy as it would seem. I’ve heard many vegans say – just put Daiya on the pizza instead of regular cheese. First of all, schools could not afford Daiya, and secondly it would not qualify as a protein in the school meal program – and that is how the cheese is counted on pizzas. Schools only have about 96 cents for the actual food cost to create a 5 component meal for lunch. So miso, non-dairy cheeses, tempeh, and many other specialty items are just not within the budget. Second, that raising money for such a good cause is not easy! Seriously, I want all of your readers to know that we have everything in place to create widespread change, and the ONLY thing holding us back is lack of resources. We have done all that we do with two full time staff persons, a part time teacher, a very dedicated volunteer treasurer, and very committed board members and volunteers.

ARS: With all that it takes to make this significant a change, it's incredible that the only thing you need is money! Hopefully our readers will help spread the word and get some funds going your way. It's absolutely ludicrous how little funds there are for feeding people, especially children, healthy food. What's your favorite animal- and kid-friendly recipe?

AH: Well if you mean of the recipes we’ve developed, in Ithaca I’d have to say it’s our newest – Golden Chinese Croquettes with orange ginger sauce developed for us by Chef Wynnie Stein of Moosewood. There is also an Indian kidney bean recipe developed by an assistant teacher at an elementary school in Ithaca – Mrs. Patel, so we named it Mrs. Patel’s Rajma (rajma means kidney bean in India.) Mrs. Patel became a rock star at her school and I love that recipe! In New York City, we have another amazing cook in our vegetarian school, PS244 – Malini Mukunthan. She developed two amazing Indian recipes, Rajma and Malini’s Chickpea Curry. It’s true that I love Indian food but these recipes really are phenomenal. In fact, Malini’s Chickpea Curry was on the menu of virtually every New York City school for Earth Day 2013!

Thank you so much, Amie. I am grateful for people like you who are doing such important work for our children, the animals, and our planet!

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