This past Monday NYC Green Schools officially launched its Meatless Monday campaign, in partnership with the national non-profit Meatless Monday. Our objective is to bring more plant-based foods into NYC schools to improve our children’s health and the health of our planet. We spent the morning at Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx speaking with student leaders at the school about the health crisis that exists among today’s youth and how eating more plant-based foods can decrease their risk for obesity and other chronic diseases.
We decided in preparing our talk with the students not to diminish the horrifying statistics facing today’s youth, that they had a right to know more than anyone the toll our food system was taking on their health. When we told them the staggering prediction that young people today will be the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents as a direct result of the food they eat, they became extremely attentive. Our statistics were really brought home by the PTA President of the school who also attended our meeting who happened to be a nurse. She told the students that five years ago the vast majority of patients they saw in the Intensive Care Unit were elderly people in their 70s and 80s who were approaching the end of their lives. In recent years that’s been changing as more and more people in their 30s and 40s show up in the ICU with complications from diabetes and hypertension as a direct result of being obese.
The students did not become defensive when hearing the news or when we proposed that they try to reduce their consumption of saturated fat by eating only plant-based meals on Monday. No one asked, “But what about my meat?” On the contrary, they were eager to give healthy, cholesterol-free foods, like vegetarian chili and pasta with tomato sauce and garbanzo beans, a try. They understood what was at stake. One student in fact had seen the film “Food Inc.” and, as a result of what she had learned about our food system, was trying to become a vegetarian. She told us that when her mom served her hamburger and french fries the night before for dinner, she only ate the fries. Granted, when we asked the students what their favorite school meals were, we heard the refrain you will hear in most NYC schools: the chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, pizza! And, unfortunately, since consumer demand is what drives the “business of school food” – not serving America’s undernourished children the most nutritious meals possible – those popular food items are likely to stay on the menu for a long time to come.
In which case, maybe education is the answer to the health crisis we face. We only had 15 minutes to share with students from Validus information about the food they were eating and how it was impacting their health. And yet, in that short time, we had students motivated to do something about it. Imagine what an entire curriculum dedicated to a detailed examination of our food system and its toll on our health and planet might do. Let’s face it, a 15-minute presentation by NYC Green Schools should not be the first time New York City high-school students learn about the grim statistics facing their generation. Students need to learn about what’s happening to their bodies and why from their earliest years in elementary school, so that good eating habits can be developed, avoiding a lifetime of disease and quite possibly premature death. Perhaps if our schools were a little less focused on test scores and more focused on subjects that are quite literally a matter of life and death to our students, we would have been spared the story we heard later in the day from a science teacher in Queens who told us about an eighth grade student at her school who had to be rushed to the hospital from complications due to diabetes.