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Physicians Committee Offers $4K to Bring Plant-Based School Lunches to N.C. School District

Experts from the Physicians Committee organized a plant-based cooking class for community members in Burke County.
Experts from the Physicians Committee organized a plant-based cooking class for community members in Burke County.

Experts from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine joined a North Carolina pediatrician in speaking at Burke County Public Schools board meeting on Monday, May 13, 2024, to urge officials there to accept a $4,000 grant to pilot two plant-based entrees in three of the district’s schools in the 2024-2025 school year.

Physicians Committee Nutrition Education Coordinator Noah Praamsma, MS, RDN, outlined the details of the grant offer. Joseph Barrocas, MD, a pediatrician from Huntersville, N.C., spoke about childhood obesity and the related lifestyle diseases he treats in children. And Roxanne Becker, MBChB, a medical doctor with the Physicians Committee, spoke about the dangers of processed meat being on the school lunch menu.

A mobile billboard urging the district’s superintendent to accept the grant offer spent the day circling Burke County.

In May 2023, the Physicians Committee opposed the North Carolina school district’s decision to spend $33,000 on a mobile meat smoker students dubbed the “Pig Rig.” This year, our experts encouraged the school district to look at its entire school food lineup and consider how it can shift toward healthier options.

“Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the detrimental effects of ultra-processed foods and processed meats on children's attention span and academic performance,” Dr. Becker said. “The standard Western diet, rich in red and processed meats and other ultra-processed foods, has been found to increase the risks of contracting ADHD. When concentration wanes, academic performance suffers.

“On the other hand, plant-based whole foods, including whole grains, fruit, and vegetables improve executive functioning of the brain, which includes memory and attention,” she said.

Praamsma recommended Burke County schools pilot Powered-Up Pasta With Chickpeas and Veg-Out Chili. Both entrees are rich in energy-sustaining complex carbohydrates, fiber for digestive health, and have over 10 grams of plant-based protein for growing bodies. They’re also low in saturated fat. Both meals are also high in vitamins A and C, which are important nutrients for healthy childhood development.

“Perhaps most importantly, though, is that kids love these dishes,” he told the school board and administration. “Both recipes were developed by DC Central Kitchen, a group that serves food in 24 Washington, D.C., public schools. They’re written to scale, use common ingredients, and meet National School Lunch Program requirements. These meals appeal to kids’ taste buds and fuel their learning and growth.”

Superintendent Mike Swan told Morganton’s The Paper “We are looking at ways next year to add more meatless options to continue to give our students the best choices we can while still meeting the child nutrition policies the USDA requires.”

A free “Taste the Rainbow” plant-based cooking class, sponsored by the Physicians Committee, was held before the school board meeting at the Collett Street Recreation Center in Morganton. Participants learned about the nutrition rainbow and each made their own Veggie Rainbow Wraps, Green Monster Smoothies, Rainbow Fruit Skewers, and Chickpea Cookie Dough Balls.

One out of three kids aged 10 to 17 in North Carolina is overweight or obese. Plant-based diets have been shown to help improve childhood obesity, an epidemic that increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, conditions that are becoming more and more common in children. A low-fat, vegan diet has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease in obese children by improving their weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Limiting saturated fat has been shown to significantly lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and blood pressure in children and adolescents. That’s important as obese children now show evidence of significant heart disease beginning as young as age 8. And half of U.S. children and adolescents do not have ideal cholesterol levels, with 25% in the clinically high range.

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