Amie Hamlin 80: Cool School Food

By Sharon Tregaskis

In the last year, kids at the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in downtown Ithaca have sampled more than 50 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, many local and organic, as part of a privately funded pilot program to provide two healthy snacks every day. At the Future Leaders Institute, a charter school in Harlem, the cafeteria offers plant-based entrees at lunch, with recipes created by chefs at Candle 79 Restaurant, a top Manhattan restaurant— the result of another pilot program. In Corning, plant-based entrees are on the menu every day, thanks to a pilot program started last year. These programs trace their roots to the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (NYCHSF), a nonprofit headed since 2004 by Amie Hamlin.

“Every time we provide foods that aren’t health supporting, we’re undermining the efforts of parents and teachers to feed children healthfully,” says Hamlin, whose vision stretches from the cafeteria to vending machines, classroom snacks, the treats teachers use to motivate their students, and even the candy sold to fund special trips and events. “Meanwhile, for the kids who don’t have healthy food at home, schools are the place where they should be able to count on getting it.”

The Elmira, New York, native got her start in the movement as a volunteer in the mid-1990s. At the time, she lived on Long Island, where she and her friend Jennifer Greene campaigned to add more healthful, plant-based options to her stepson’s elementary school lunches.

Today, Hamlin works from a home office in Ithaca and travels around New York, coordinating NYCHSF programs throughout the state and employees in both Ithaca and New York City. The Coalition’s Wellness Wakeup reaches almost 100,000 students daily with “nutrition education in the form of easy to digest sound bites”—provided free to New York State schools for use during morning announcements. A partnership with the New York City Office of School Food, the largest school food service in the country, is developing and introducing plant-based entrees for use in 20 to 30 schools. Called Project Cool School Food, it introduces plant-based main dish recipes that are “cool” because they are not only healthy and hip, but they also help counter global warming.

Given that American’s are eating 63 percent of their calories from processed foods, 25 percent from animal foods, and only 12 percent from plant-foods, Hamlin has her work cut out for her. But she’s optimistic: “Acceptance of the plant-based entrée has grown dramatically,” she says.