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Plant-based school meals: A healthy future for students and the climate

As the devastation of climate change threatens future generations, it is children who are leading the fight to save the planet. Recently, students around the world took a day off of school to protest inaction against climate change. They were inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old founder of the Youth Strike for Climate movement, who was recently nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

But students don’t have to stop the fight against climate change now that they’re back in school. In fact, a new bill in the California Legislature could help students across the state fight climate change with the foods served in their schools’ lunch lines.

Robert Stewart

The California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program, AB 479, which was recently introduced by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, incentivizes K-12 public schools in California to offer plant-based lunch options that would boost students’ health. More plant-based meals would also help protect the environment, according to The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.

As a family physician with two school-aged children, I know that the bill wouldn’t just help protect the future health of the planet — it would help protect the future health of students by ensuring that all students have the opportunity to eat more disease-fighting fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.

That’s critical. The state’s Let’s Get Healthy California campaign says that more than 70 percent of California adolescents are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which can help lower the risk of chronic diseases including obesity. California already lags behind the state’s goals for reducing childhood obesity, with more than four out of every 10 adolescents either overweight or obese, and rates for adolescents more than double the target rate.

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Heart disease and diabetes often go hand-in-hand with obesity. In fact, a recent study of Ohio middle school students found that 42 percent of those screened were either overweight or obese, and more than one-third had abnormal levels of blood sugar or high cholesterol, two known risk factors for future heart disease.

But a recent study from Yale University that followed 595 middle school students from 12 schools for three years found that nutrition policies that encouraged healthier eating helped students maintain a healthier weight.

“This is some of the strongest evidence we have to date that nutrition education and promoting healthy eating behaviors in the classroom and cafeteria can have a meaningful impact on children’s health,” said one of the study’s authors.

Research shows that plant-based diets, in particular, can help children lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and improve their cholesterol. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals — also says that plant-based diets are appropriate for childhood and adolescence and that vegans are at reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.

Many California school districts have already successfully taken steps to help protect students’ health by offering healthful, plant-based options. The menu for Los Angeles Unified School District’s vegan pilot program, which launched in 2017, currently includes a vegan burrito, teriyaki veggie patty sandwich, falafel flatbread, bean vegan chili, and chicken-free tenders. And at Santa Barbara Unified School District, 50 percent of the meals are vegan.

Of course, meals like these are also good for the planet. A 2017 analysis showed how Oakland Unified School District reduced its carbon footprint by 14 percent and saved $42,000 over two years by serving less meat and more plant-based foods.

By passing the California School Plant-Based Food and Beverage Program, AB 479, the California Legislature could take a step to ensure a healthy future for both the planet and students.

A butcher, a cardiologist, a vegan and a technology reporter try the Impossible Burger, a plant-based hamburger that “bleeds,” made by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods.

Anthony Lim, M.D., J.D., is a board-certified family physician who is the medical director of The McDougall Program, a staff physician at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, and a part-time physician at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa. Dr. Lim is also a licensed attorney in California.