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The Physicians Committee

Plant-Based School Lunch Options Could Help Fight Obesity

By Patrice Green, M.D.

This letter was printed on March 30, 2010, in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

It’s not just baby fat. That phrase is something many parents are now hearing from pediatricians. Some thought their children would outgrow their extra pounds as they mature. Or, like first lady Michelle Obama, they may not have noticed their children gaining weight since it can happen gradually.

The first lady recently came under fire for publicly discussing her daughters’ weight and the ensuing eating plan she put them on to slim down. As a physician, I support her persistent motivation to fight our nation’s obesity epidemic and am glad she is framing her anti-obesity campaign in personal terms. Americans need to understand that no family—not even the first family—is unaffected by obesity.

Congress is now considering revisions to federal child nutrition legislation, and lawmakers have proposed a barrage of ideas that could help suppress the obesity epidemic. They’ve suggested everything from school gardens and bake sale bans to fast-food free school zones. A new bill just introduced outlines an innovative approach to helping in the drive to solve the obesity disaster.

The Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, H.R. 4870, would help all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program add plant-based vegetarian options. It would increase plant-based commodity foods and give schools financial incentives to offer plant-based meals.

Baltimore’s school district has recently added more vegetarian options, and children are already developing better eating habits and learning to love fruits and vegetables. The 80,000 students in Baltimore public schools now find vegetarian chili, fiesta corn, steamed broccoli, and other healthful foods in the lunch line. The program reduces saturated fat in school lunches and also exposes children to a variety of healthful foods that help shape lifelong eating habits.

Even though some children easily shed extra pounds as they hit puberty, many others have real weight issues and need help to develop better eating habits. Excess weight is setting children up to have a much higher chance of developing chronic diseases.

We already know that one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes later in life. And one in five teenagers already have cholesterol levels that put them at risk for heart disease, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies show that vegetables, fruits, and whole grains—all 100 percent cholesterol-free—can help lower the risk of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic diseases. Baltimore schools have already discovered the best way to fight chronic disease—increase access to healthful foods and teach children the importance of good nutrition.

As lawmakers consider the specifics of the Child Nutrition Act, they should include language from the Healthy School Meals Act to help all schools offer plant-based vegetarian foods every day. The American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, and the Institute of Medicine have all voiced their support for vegetarian school lunch options. Now we must ensure that schools have the funding and resources to make this happen.

If the first lady and Congress take the lead and help schools offer more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based vegetarian meals, they’ll have the best chance at conquering obesity in a generation—and the next generation will have the best chance at lifelong good health.

Patrice Green, M.D., is a primary care physician in Baltimore.


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