Cool school food program turns Harlem kids into vegans - are yours next?

The term "Vegan Feast" sounds like an oxymoron, as joyless and tasteless as you can imagine. At least that's what I thought as I headed to the Future Leaders Institute Charter School in Harlem for a dinner of rabbity-sounding "plant-based food."

Was I ever wrong.

For starters, there was joy aplenty in the cafeteria that night. Squirmy kids hopped up and down as they aced nutrition quizzes called "Truth or Dairy" and "Don't Buy the Lie," which taught about the fuzzy math of the food industry. Believe it or not, I was the only one who didn't know that zero trans fat doesn't mean zero at all, and that 2% milk is actually 35% fat.

Of course, the kids have had two-and-a-half years of nutrition education, thanks to the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, a private non-profit that stepped in to supplement the efforts of the NY Office of School Food. Starting with free bag lunches, the coalition built up their pilot program so that the Cool School Food project now offers plant-based options in seven New York City public schools.

"This school is a testimony to what a difference this education can make," said Amie Hamlin, NYCHSF's executive director. "At the last dinner, one mom got up on a table and announced that healthier eating had cured her asthma. Plus she'd lost 15-pounds."

And thanks to the ongoing support of Candle 79 / Candle Cafe restaurants, the food tastes unbelievably delicious. So much so that I went back for seconds -- and then thirds -- of seitan, the vegetarian "wheat meat," partly because I can't resist food that sounds like the Devil.

"Don't worry," said Candle restaurants owner Bart Potenza, "you won't develop horns."

These free monthly family dinners offer a chance for the community to experience just how sinfully good healthy food can be. As a result, the kids are apt to make better food choices at school. Cafeteria head Pac Avalos reports that, depending on the menu, anywhere from 50%-100% of students now choose the plant-based option. Over the last two and a half years, students have come to love hummus sandwiches, veggie tacos and pasta with barbecued tofu.

This is how you change the world: one taste bud at a time. Given a choice between yummy-healthy and yummy-unhealthy, most of us will choose the former, but only if the decision is easy. The coalition isn't on a mission to convert the world to veganism, just nudge us all to make healthier choices for ourselves and the planet.

What's more, it's good for business. I don't eat out much, but I'm already planning on going to Candle Cafe this week for my father's birthday. And I'll probably buy their cookbook, as long as it doesn't require too many ingredients. Because, despite my best intentions, I'm lazy that way (and have a tiny kitchen). Assuming the NYCHSF can continue to be funded -- and that's a big assumption - everybody wins: kids, families, business and the planet.

And that, my friends, is definitely The Upside.

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