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SC schools, parents urged to commit to healthier, plant-based diets for children

by Dr. Bethany Carlos

As a pediatrician in Charleston, South Carolina, I know that the last year has been hard on our kids’ health. During the pandemic, most of my patients gained too much weight, increasing their overall risk for poor health outcomes such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.

At the same time, climate change is impacting our kids’ physical and mental health. Already, kids are suffering and dying from heat stroke, asthma and other problems made worse by the changing climate. And, according to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, those impacts could become more frequent and deadly over the course of our kids’ lifetimes.

We can change that. The climate report shows that the choices we make today will determine the severity of future climate change. By eating more plant-based foods, we can reduce our contribution to climate change over the long term and improve the health of our children today.

That’s because producing meat and dairy generates large amounts of methane and other climate-changing greenhouse gases. And diets heavy in animal products have been linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease — and even severe cases of COVID-19. As kids return to in-school learning, we have an opportunity to serve them healthier, more nutritious meals. Most days, many children eat most of their meals at school. Over 400,000 students in South Carolina’s public schools are served lunch every day.

A report from the Friends of the Earth shows that serving less meat in school lunches can have a big impact on the climate. For example, replacing hot dogs — a lunchroom staple — with fish sticks or veggie bean tostadas would cut the meal’s greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds.

The Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine encourages plant-based school meals, given the benefits of increased vitamins and nutrients, weight management and fewer gastrointestinal problems.

Across the nation, hundreds of communities, school districts and workplaces have adopted Meatless Mondays — even our capital, Columbia, is on board.

Why not offer these healthy alternatives to South Carolina’s schoolchildren? Some argue that it would be more expensive to adopt a more plant-based menu in our schools. While there might be upfront costs to transition schools to healthier foods, it is likely to cost less over the long term. In Oakland, California, the school food service saved $42,000 over two years by serving fewer animal products and more fresh vegetables and fruit. At the same time, Oakland cut their meals’ carbon footprint by 14 percent and reduced water use by 6 percent.

Others may believe that children wouldn’t enjoy plant-based meals, but many initiatives have refuted that argument. One study by the School Nutrition Association found no difference in food waste between standard and vegan lunches.

Our South Carolina schools have made amazing progress with local farm-to-school efforts and providing meals to students even while in virtual school. Now there is an opportunity to take another step further. Serving more plant-based meals won’t just improve the health of our children, it will help address climate change, which is a long-term threat to our health and security.

Parents, you have the power to change the policies made in your local school districts. Urge your school board to provide more plant-based, climate-friendly school meals. Making a choice for healthier children is a choice for a healthier earth.

Bethany Carlos, MD MPH is a community pediatrician from South Carolina and focuses on public health and climate change. She enjoys helping her patients and their families find ultimate health through physical, emotional, and environmental health.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published October 6, 2021 on The State.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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