A year ago, I invited Ms. Elizabeth Puccini from NYC Green Schools to guest blog about Meatless Monday. At first I was concerned that “meatless” meant gooey processed cheese like I ate frequently last year. But I learned that there was way more to “meatless” than that. I invited her to share her perspective once again.
EDUCATION: WE WON’T SEE CHANGE WITHOUT IT
By Elizabeth Puccini
I used to think access to healthy, nutritious meals in our schools was a food justice issue with parallels to the civil rights movement: you were either on the morally right side of the issue or the wrong. I’ve since learned that, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. With the civil rights movement, African-Americans didn’t need to be told segregation was wrong: they felt the stigma of being treated like second-class citizens and understood it as an affront to their humanity. It was consequently easy to mobilize people and ignite a movement. Not so with the food justice movement. Although nothing less than our children’s health is at stake, most Americans don’t understand that the food they are eating is making them sick and will cut years off their life. Education, which takes time and effort, is desperately needed if we are going to reverse the rising rates of obesity and other chronic diseases in our children.
I came to understand how important a component education is to the school food movement when my partner Anisa Romero and I started to promote Meatless Monday in New York City schools. As I wrote last year, our children’s schools were the first in New York City to serve only plant-based meals on Monday back in October of 2009, a policy we implemented, as members of our Wellness Committee, after seeing all the meat and cheese-based meals that were being served to our children for lunch. Since then, Anisa and I decided to make Meatless Monday our health initiative in schools, because we saw the movement as a great opportunity to start educating kids about the health and environmental consequences of the food they are eating. Our visit to Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, a public high-school “dedicated to academics, health and fitness” serving over 400 students, drove home to us how necessary it is to give kids the information they need to make healthy choices for themselves and our planet, because tragically enough, they are not receiving this information at home or at school. Here are some of the facts we shared with the students at Validus, which they were hearing for the first time:
- Today’s children are the first generation of Americans expected to live shorter lives than their parents as a direct result of the food they eat.
- Of the children born in 2000, 1 in 3 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. For Hispanic and African-American children the odds are closer to 1 in 2.
- Americans consume 45% more meat than the USDA recommends.
- We also eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, 3 times more cheese than what people were eating in the 1970s.
- Animal protein, in the form of meat and cheese, is the primary source of saturated fat which raises the level of cholesterol in your blood thereby increasing your risk of heart disease.
As we rolled out these statistics, I could literally see the students’ faces drop with a combination of horror and shock. I thought to myself, how is it possible that high-school students are hearing these statistics for the first time? It was obvious they didn’t remotely suspect how large an impact the food they were eating could have on their health. They were also scrabbling to understand how their parents and schools could regularly feed them the kinds of food that contribute to disease. Compounding their astonishment was an observation by their PTA President, who was a nurse by profession, who said that the majority of patients they see now in the ICU are people in their 40s and 50s with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart failure, as a result of being obese.
No wonder the class looked like a herd of deer caught in a semitruck’s blazing headlights. Everyone was failing them: their government, schools, communities and families. As an Italian-American, I understand food is a complex issue with deep emotional and cultural associations for people. However, we fail our children when we don’t arm them with the information they need to make better choices for themselves so they can live long, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
Since we’re not likely to see a federally-mandated nutrition curriculum anytime soon, we at NYC Green Schools have spent the last few months putting together a power-point presentation that we can bring to middle and high-school students called “Food Matters” that explains, through statistics, photographs and animation, the health and environmental consequences of the food we are eating. The presentation offers Meatless Monday as a simple way to start eating more cholesterol-free foods that are rich in nutrients and low in calories, like vegetables and whole grains, by eliminating animal foods just one day a week. We’re hoping to bring the presentation to schools starting in May. If you’re interested in starting Meatless Monday at your school, go to NYCGreenSchools.org and click on “Meatless Monday Movement”; you can also find out more about the movement at MeatlessMonday.com.