Amie Hamlin, NY Coalition for Healthy School Lunches



Part II: Amie Hamlin
NY Coalition for Healthy School Lunches

Amie Hamlin began as Executive Director of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food in when the organization was founded in 2004 and has worked to expand the reach of her organizations work over the years. NYCHSF currently partners with the New York City Office of SchoolFood and the Ithaca City School District Child Nutrition Program, offering plant-based entrees to over 17,000 students. NYCHSF also offers Wellness Wakeup Call, a nutrition education program available in K-5 and 6-12 versions, written by Registered Dietitians. Amie has worked in the non-profit world since 1996 when she was Director of a Tobacco-Free Coalition and then of two environmental non-profits.


Caryn Hartglass:   I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food.  In the next portion of the show we are going to be talking about an organization called the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, and I have the executive director, Amie Hamlin on the line, and we are going to be talking about all the great things that this organization is doing.  Welcome to It’s All About Food, Amie.

Dr. Amie Hamlin:   Thank you.  Hello!

Caryn Hartglass:   Hi.  So, give me a little history on this New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.  How did it get started?

Amie Hamlin:   Well, back in 2004 a group of people decided they would like to see a New York State legislative resolution encouraging that there be a plant-based entrée on the menu every day in every school.  So we set out to write this resolution.  We wrote it, and it passed unanimously.  Now, a resolution is not a law, but it is voted on as if it is a law, so it is a recommendation.  After it passed we decided we need to have an organization to implement these recommendations, or to help schools implement these recommendations.

Caryn Hartglass:   Right.  That’s funny I didn’t know that’s how you began.  I live in New York.  I’m a New Yorker, and yet I helped in California to get a similar resolution passed in early 2000s, so it’s certainly a very good thing.  As you said it’s not a law, so it’s not anything that requires anyone to do anything, but it’s definitely a very important step to make sure who’s on the same page.

Amie Hamlin:   It serves a great educational purpose and encourages movement in that direction.

Caryn Hartglass:   Right.  So it’s been seven or eight years, and what has happened in that time period.

Amie Hamlin:   Well, I have to say that so many things have happened, and we can hardly believe it ourselves–so many wonderful things.  For example, we are in a formal partnership with the New York City Office of School Food, and we serve plant-based entrées in 18 schools right now.

Caryn Hartglass:   Eighteen?

Amie Hamlin:  Yes, 18 schools right now.  So, that’s very exciting.  We have done a lot of education of the upper level management in the New York City offices of School Food, as well as the kitchen staff in each school, and a number of the teachers in each school.  Also, in the cafeteria we talk to the students, encouraging them to try the food and sometimes showing them what the ingredients are in the food.  One thing is that we need more people on the ground in the schools.  So, if there are any of your listeners in the city who would love to come into the schools during lunchtime during the week, we would love to hear from them.

Caryn Hartglass:   So, what would they be doing?

Amie Hamlin:  Well, they would be doing a number of things.  They would be both observing and interacting with the children, seeing how the food looks and tastes, encouraging the kids to try it, observing if they’re eating it or if it’s going into the garbage.  It’s important to know these things.

Caryn Hartglass:   Right.  That’s a good point.  I know that’s one of the challenges in that, certainly, you can get the food and make it look good, taste good, but to get kids to eat it is really a critical step, and there are so many different things working against us to get kids to even just try something.

Amie Hamlin:   Well, you’re right.  The problem is that so many children are used to eating fast foods and maybe not used to eating bean dishes, and all these recipes are bean based because that is the only whole food, plant food, that counts as a protein for reimbursement through the Federal School Meal Program.

Caryn Hartglass:   So, let’s just take a pause for a moment and praise the bean because it is definitely an acceptable food, what we call a commodity food, I think, that is approved by the USDA for school lunches.

Amie Hamlin:   Yes, schools can get beans through the commodity program which has now been renamed USDA Food.

Caryn Hartglass:   Okay, great.  So, beans are inexpensive, and they have a lot of great nutrition.  You can do so many different things with them.  They are satisfying, and they’re just a great food.

Amie Hamlin:   They are amazing.  What we are constantly telling people is that they are a whole food, plant-based protein.  That means they contain no cholesterol, since cholesterol is only found in the animal products.  They are loaded with fiber and phytonutrients, and you only find phytonutrients in plant foods.  So they really are very filling, delicious, and very versatile.  You can make burgers and loafs.  You can use them on enchiladas, burritos, make casseroles and gumbos.  You can do just so many different things, and there are so many different kinds of beans.

Caryn Hartglass:   Okay, so back to the issue of kids throwing the food away, we have seen images of the trays having apples and oranges and different things on them that go from the tray to the garbage, which is heartbreaking to me.  How do you get kids to want to eat better foods?

Amie Hamlin:   Yes, there are a couple of issues.  One reason that a lot of food goes in the garbage, whether it’s our healthy food or any food that’s served in schools, is that they need a longer lunch period.  This is the time they get to socialize, and maybe they only have a 20-minute lunch period with part of it having to stand in line.  Sometimes kids only have five to ten minutes to eat by the time they sit down.  They also really want to socialize with their friends.  So this is one of the biggest issues.  The other big issue is that in many schools–this is not so true in the New York City Schools, but we also have this program in the upstate schools as well–there are too many choices.  In the very limited schools around the country where they have decided that all of their food is going to be unprocessed, super healthy, no artificial ingredients, the kids eat the food, and that’s because there aren’t other choices.

Caryn Hartglass:   Right, because they are hungry, so they take something that looks okay, and they eat it.

Amie Hamlin:   Right.  The other thing is that with our foods we don’t just put it on the menu we do taste testing and ask the kids for feedback.  We have a voting ballot and a voting box.  We also show them what ingredients are in the food, and in upstate what we do is we get music and balloons which is sometimes a little harder to do in some of the New York City schools.  So, we try to make it festive, fun, and something that the kids want to try.  Our program is called Cool School Food, so we are implementing a program of Cool School Food ambassadors which are children who will help promote the food to their friends.  By the way, it is called Cool School Food because it’s cool, it’s great, and it’s fun, but also it contributes less to global warming.  So instead of it being a food that causes global warming, it’s a cool food.

Caryn Hartglass:   I like that.  That’s cool!

Amie Hamlin:   Double meaning!

Caryn Hartglass:   I had no idea that kids really don’t have enough time to eat.  That is kind of fascinating me, and I have this image of the long lunches in the Mediterranean countries, like in the South of France and Italy where people take a leisurely amount of time to eat, and then there is this slow food movement.  There really is an important factor that I never even thought about, taking time to eat food.

Amie Hamlin:   It’s very critical.  We have heard a couple of negative things in the news about healthy food being thrown in the garbage, but the truth is that in some of those studies they are really only looking at the healthy foods; but, actually, if they looked at the healthy foods and the regular foods, they would find out that a lot of food, in general, is going into the garbage just because they don’t have enough time to eat.

Caryn Hartglass:   So, they grab a candy bar, or something, if they’re hungry.

Amie Hamlin:   If that’s available.  Actually, candy bars are not supposed to be available in schools.  On the laws there is a list of certain foods that cannot be offered in schools.

Caryn Hartglass:   They could have them in their backpack, can’t they?

Amie Hamlin:   That’s right.  Many kids bring really unhealthy food to eat also, but the bottom line is that if there are unhealthy choices, it’s easy for kids to take the familiar food, the one they are used to, and eat it.

Caryn Hartglass:   Well, that’s part of childhood.  Kids want stability and familiarity.  There are so many other things in their lives that are changing, they want things that they know, and food is a big part of it.

Amie Hamlin:   And yet, if we do the right thing to introduce it to them in the right way, they find it is delicious, and they like it.

Caryn Hartglass:   Of course!

Amie Hamlin:   In three of our schools we offer only these entrées with the option of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but no option of another hot entrée.  These are in elementary schools, and in those schools you will see the vast majority of the kids eating our entrées.  So, they end up eating it and liking it.

Caryn Hartglass:   Well, I have to say that peanut butter is a very important part of my adult life.

Amie Hamlin:   Yes, it is not a bad option to have as long as it is made healthfully.  In fact, we are going to be doing a little campaign about peanut butter and jelly and showing people how to make a healthy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because often times in schools—and when I’m talking about these things, I’m not just talking about any one school district.  It is a nation-wide program, the school meal program, so what I’m saying is across the board, across the country—but about the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, often times the peanut butter has added sugar, added oil, hydrogenated oils, added salt, and the jelly often has high fructose corn syrup.  The bread often has high fructose corn syrup and too much sodium, and oftentimes it is white bread.  So, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which could be really healthy oftentimes in schools is not.  So that is something we are looking to address as well.

Caryn Hartglass:   Yeah, that’s important, because here you could take something that is familiar that people like and just mysteriously add things that shouldn’t be there, but it will still seem familiar.  I’m always screaming to people, “what’s in your peanut butter?” because all that should be in it is peanuts and nothing else.

Amie Hamlin:   That’s right, and there is a company, which I’m not going to name, that makes packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  They are round with no crust and crimped edges, and the list of ingredients, of which I think there are over 100, is just horrendous, but the reason the schools like to use this particular peanut and butter jelly sandwich is because it is pre-packaged in a factory.  So, with the peanut issue with allergies, they aren’t working with the peanut butter in the cafeteria, and they feel it is a little bit safer in terms of cross-contamination.  I would like to see this company making a healthier option peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I need to call them and talk to them about it.

Caryn Hartglass:  I think one of our big issues with food today, and I hope that it is changing—I know that it is changing, but I hope it gets very dramatic—is that we have gone from local small scale farming to food production with all these giant businesses that make things on a very large scale, often with serious reduction in and adding bad ingredients.  That goes from growing food with giant agribusiness, big farms, monocropping, and using lots of herbicides and pesticides, and then shipping things around.  In the process everything becomes low quality and not healthy.  So we need small farms in local areas bringing fresh foods to people, and the schools need to get back to making whole, fresh food instead of buying things in these packages, these powders, and just mixing them up and serving them.

Amie Hamlin:   Well, I’ll tell you, there are a couple of issues that make it difficult.  First of all for the average school meal the food cost that is in the meal is 90 cents for the average school lunch.  That does not include labor and overhead, benefits, and all of that, but the food itself in the average school lunch across the country has a value of 90 cents, and that is for five components that must be offered which includes a protein, a grain, a vegetable, a fruit, and a milk.  Milk is required to be offered because it would take an act of congress, literally, to change that.  You know that if you go to the Harvard School of Public Health website and if you search under dairy, the first article you will get talks about dairy and prostate cancer and some of the other health problems with milk which are pretty well proven at this point.  They talk about how yes it’s a source of calcium but it is not the best source of calcium.  You can get it from other places, and the dairy industry can’t even advertise milk as being for strong bones anymore because the research really does not bear that out.  Yes, we need calcium but the idea of drinking milk for calcium is a little bit strange.  I don’t know if you have covered this on your show, but…..

Caryn Hartglass:   Many times, but yes, please repeat it.

Amie Hamlin:   Mammals milk is made for baby mammals, and we are the only species that continues drinking milk after weaning, and we drink the milk of another species.  Actually, even with all the promotion of low-fat and fat-free milk, milk has other problems with it.  It’s not just the fat.  So that is one thing.  Another thing is that most people don’t even have that, not that it’s healthy, but dairy products are the biggest source of saturated fat in the American diet, and some kids are having milk four times a day, breakfast, lunch, after school snack, and dinner.  So, it’s just a huge amount of saturated fat that kids are getting.  In schools they are now only serving low-fat and fat-free milk, but again, there are all these issues about milk other than just the fat.  There is the casein which is one of the milk’s proteins which has actually been found to be very carcinogenic.

Caryn Hartglass:   Yeah, it’s a strange thing about our culture, the things we want for our children.  I would think we would want the very best for our children to build a healthy, smart future society, and yet we are somehow wrapped up in other things.  I don’t even know if people realize what we are giving our kids in schools.

Amie Hamlin:   I think oftentimes they don’t, and in the case of the milk, most people still think this is a really healthy thing.  Now one of the good things that is happening in schools is that schools are now required to offer water for free at mealtime, and unless there is an actual water fountain within the cafeteria, schools must offer drinkable water.  One of the reasons kids drink so much milk at school is that oftentimes there is not another choice, and they are using it to wash down their food they are eating so quickly.  So, now that water is available, and if it isn’t yet you can talk to your school because it should be.  It’s the law now.

Caryn Hartglass:   Water!  Oh gosh.

Amie Hamlin:   Yes, water!  They have to make a law about it which is kind of crazy.  Hopefully children should have access to water.  I certainly have been in many schools where I have seen that the law has not been implemented yet.  I have to talk for a minute in defense of the school’s food directors and staff because what’s going on in the cafeteria is not their choice.  They work under very strict regulations with very limited budgets, and unlike the rest of what goes on in schools that is paid for by the school budget that comes from property taxes, the school meal program has to be a self-supporting program.  That makes no sense.  Imagine if we said that the math program needs to go out and raise its own budget.  We wouldn’t do that, and yet food and learning how to eat healthfully is really a life skill.  It is just as important, if not more important, as many of the other skills that kids learn in schools because they will grow up, and the vast majority will get these diet-related diseases.  If we could teach children how to eat healthfully that would be an amazing life skill they would have, and there are so many food advocates who, even long before me, have worked so, so hard on this issue to create change.  First Lady, Michelle Obama, has actually finally brought a lot of attention to this issue.  So now in a much more mainstream way, people are just beginning to understand what some of these issues are and what we need to do about it.  So you are seeing more farm-to-school programs, and in fact in upstate New York where we have our program we actually use local, organic beans from our local bean farm.

Caryn Hartglass:   Neat!

Amie Hamlin:   Yes, Cayuga Pure Organics, they are called, and you can actually by Cayuga Pure Organic items in New York City such as beans and grains.  They are really wonderful.  So there is a lot going on, and the schools are very receptive to working with community groups, and they want things to be better.  They know they aren’t good, and they are frustrated by all of the limitations they have placed upon them.  So one thing I really want to emphasize is that going in and getting mad at your school food service director is not the way to go because what they need to hear is, “how can I help you?”  So, don’t complain, and get involved.

Caryn Hartglass:   Exactly, and that is a lesson that applies to most anything, of course.  If you see a problem, getting angry is not a solution, but helping definitely is.  This whole situation is like a microcosm of so many ills in our society and how they are all connected.  Just a few of the things you have mentioned such as, to begin with, 90 cents goes toward a child’s meal in school, and that’s not even the real cost because so many of those foods are already subsidized by our tax dollars.

Amie Hamlin:   That’s right.  I don’t know if you have seen those subsidy pyramids which show that the amounts towards subsidies of foods are directly opposite of the amount of those foods we are supposed to eat.  So the foods we are supposed to eat less have the most subsidies, and the foods we are supposed to eat more have the least subsidies, but it just goes to show how powerful the food industry is.

Caryn Hartglass:   Exactly, and I keep saying if we had some really clever, sexy advertising for fruits and vegetables, people would be eating them.  That’s all it takes, making it look cool, making it look fun, making it look good, and making it look like that’s what everybody’s doing.

Amie Hamlin:   Also, making it affordable because a lot of people say they aren’t affordable, and the truth is that if everybody in a family ate the amount of fruits and vegetables they are supposed to eat, and not just the cheapest ones on sale, but a variety, it really does cost more than many processed foods.  That’s not always true, but it is often true.  So it is sometimes really hard to afford all of the fruits and vegetables we are supposed to be eating.  I know from working with the school districts upstate that when you try to add more fruits and vegetables, they are doing it, but it is not so easy because it is more expensive than many of the processed foods.

Caryn Hartglass:   We have enough information now that shows when you put healthy food into the schools and kids eat it, you see so many dramatic changes.  They learn better, their behavior is better, it’s just a win-win situation, and some schools have demonstrated that it doesn’t cost more.

Amie Hamlin:   Right.  It’s possible to do, and one of the ways it is possible is that the more students who eat the meals, the more money the school gets, and therefore it becomes more affordable to do, but when they have so many unhealthy choices as options, then not as many are getting the reimbursable meal.  So if you could get every student, or nearly every student, in the school to eat a reimbursable meal, the school would have a lot more money to work with.

Caryn Hartglass:   Okay, so where is the resistance coming from?

Amie Hamlin:  Well, I would say it is coming from the food industry.  We have a new law, The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act which was called the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and the regulations for that just got finalized in January, and those regulations had to be modified because the original ones that were proposed limited white potatoes to one time a week.  This is just an example which was in the media quite a bit, and the potato industry went nuts, saying that potatoes are healthy, but the point was to be serving more green, orange, and red vegetables.  That was the point of it, not that potatoes are necessarily so horrible.  I contacted the USDA, and I said why don’t you count them as a grain because at home when we are making our dinner, we have rice or potatoes as the starch which fills in for the grain.  We don’t usually have rice and potatoes and broccoli.  So, the idea was to replace the potatoes, which are really inexpensive and very affordable for the schools, with more nutrient-dense, lower calorie vegetables, but the potato industry went nuts.  Part of it was that they said potatoes are healthy, and part of it was they said that schools can’t afford the other vegetables, but they could have done this easy, creative solution, and yet they didn’t.  So now there is a new rule that every week there has to be an orange or red vegetable once a week, a green vegetable once a week, and legumes have to be served once a week; however, legumes can count as a vegetable or a protein in the school program as well as the US dietary guidelines.  So they are requiring legumes to be served as a vegetable.  I also suggested that the legumes be required to be served as a protein.  That way the legume, like the potato, wouldn’t be taking the place of a green or orange vegetable.  It would be nicer to have the legumes be served as a protein with a green or orange vegetable.

Caryn Hartglass:   Yeah, it is so frustrating.

Amie Hamlin:   But we just keep plugging away because that is all we can do.  We can try to make people more aware.  We offer the food to the students and get them interested in trying it, and little by little a lot of changes are being made.  I think even plant-based diets have entered the mainstream awareness like never before thanks to the great talk-show hosts like Oprah, Ellen, Dr. Oz, and Martha Stewart, all these talk-show hosts who have done these shows on plant-based diets.

Caryn Hartglass:   I think a real important piece of this are the parents of the children because if the parents are aware and want their children to eat well, knowing a little bit about nutrition and the importance of fruits and vegetables and wanting their children to eat them, then they are going to get more involved in the schools.  Then when there is that sort of focus and pressure from demanding parents, then the schools would sort of budges a little bit.

Amie Hamlin:   Well, it’s true, but the problem is that many parents have swallowed the food industry’s take on what is healthy.  My feeling is that only healthy schools should be offered in the schools.  It’s our tax-payer dollars, and as I said before, it’s not part of the school budget where the money comes from but reimbursable meals.  So for children receiving free and reduced-priced meals, those are reimbursed by the federal government and sometimes the state government.  In New York State there is a small reimbursement too.  Plus the money that children pay who are paying full price for their meals, and even though they are paying full price, actually, there is a small subsidy for those meals as well.  So the parents believe what they hear, so my strong feeling is let’s tell people the truth.  It’s a free country so people can eat whatever they want, so let’s tell people the truth about what we know about nutrition, and then let them make the decision.  Sometimes you hear, in this heart disease reversal research, there was this PBS documentary on Dean Ornish’s research, and of course Caldwell Esselstyn is the other one who did the great heart disease reversal research; but years ago there was this PBS special “Avoiding the Surgeon’s Knife, “ and it followed Dr. Ornish’s patients for a year, and it concluded that it really worked and worked very well.  It reversed heart disease without drugs, without surgery, and it worked great.  The last thing they ended the show with was that it is so hard that most people won’t be willing to do it.  Then the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine did some research to see how close patients would stick to their doctor’s advice, having doctors recommending a certain level of fat in their diet, and they found out whatever level of fat they were told to eat, the patients stuck pretty close to what they were told.  So, it is a matter of telling people the truth about nutrition, and that involves the food industry not being able to misrepresent themselves.

Caryn Hartglass:   Absolutely, and not dumbing us down.  It’s so frustrating when doctors and other authorities assume we are not going to do things.  We need to be brought up and not dumbed down.

Amie Hamlin:   The doctors need it too because most doctors are not required to have nutrition training, and even if they were they would get the standard nutrition training, but we are making progress.  The new U.S. dietary guidelines came out in 2010 with the associated plate guide.  In case anyone doesn’t know, the food pyramid has been retired and we now have the plate guide, and here is how the plate guide works:  75% of the plate is definitely plant-based, and the other 25% is optionally plant-based.  In fact the new dietary guidelines devote a whole page just to vegan diets.  They have another page for vegetarian diets, so they are acknowledging that this is a very healthy way to eat.  All the research points to this.

Caryn Hartglass:   Yeah, it is definitely an improvement, and I like to think we are going in a very positive direction.  We are out of time.  Amie, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food.  I want to mention the website

Amie Hamlin:   Actually, is our updated website, even though the one you said works.

Caryn Hartglass:   Okay, so

Amie Hamlin:   Thank you so much.

Caryn Hartglass:   Thank you, Amie, and keep going!  I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you have been listening to It’s All About Food.  Have a very delicious week.

Transcribed by Ann Dungey, 4/1/2013

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