According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 30.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese. About 30.4 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 are overweight, while 15.5 percent are obese. Rates of obesity-related diseases-such as type-2 diabetes, asthma and hypertension-are rapidly rising in young people.
The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that there is compelling evidence that atherosclerosis--hardening of the arteries--begins in childhood and progresses slowly into adulthood, where it often leads to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. The AHA theorizes that elevated cholesterol levels early in life play a role in the development of atherosclerosis and recommends lowering cholesterol levels in children and adolescents.
This is why the school cafeteria should be part of the remedy rather than contributing to the problem. Unlike meat, eggs and dairy products, plant-based foods contain no cholesterol and have been shown to reverse heart disease. Researchers have found that a vegetarian diet rich in soy and soluble fiber can reduce cholesterol levels by as much as one-third. David Jenkins, professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto, has reported that "the evidence is pretty strong that vegans, who eat no animal products, have the best cardiovascular health profile and the lowest cholesterol levels."
The late Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, "Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer."
Yet only five percent of elementary, six percent of middle and 10 percent of high schools currently offer vegan options-and even then the options may only include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or salads.
These schools should follow the example of the more progressive districts that are making it easier for students to choose healthy fare. The Bloomfield Central School District in upstate New York provides locally grown vegetables and fruits, whole grain and bean salads and at least one vegan soup each day. Schools in Collier County, Fla., offer soy products and salad bars filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Grady High School in Atlanta opened an all-vegetarian lunch line. A student-run Smart Cart at James Logan High School in Union City, Calif., was so successful that the school began incorporating vegan foods into the regular lunch menu. The Fairfax County school system in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., offers soy milk and other vegan options.
The high schools in Appleton, Wisconsin, profiled in the documentary Super Size Me, serve fresh whole foods and a plant-based option each day. One school for troubled youth documented a drop in violent behavior and a rise in attendance and academic performance after the school began offering more vegan foods.
Students at schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)-the second largest school district in the nation-have had access to healthy, cholesterol-free vegetarian food since the LAUSD Obesity Prevention Resolution passed in 2004.
While People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals promotes a vegetarian diet for ethical, as well as health, reasons, there should be no animal rights debate about this topic. The school lunch line should be a source of nourishment, not disease.