BUENA BOROUGH — Benjamin Schmitt likes broccoli, vegan pizza (lots of vegetables, no cheese), and chickpea “tuna” salad with green pepper, pickles and vegan mayo.
The 6-year-old embraced the vegan lifestyle after his mom, Erin, a cancer survivor, slowly transitioned the family diet away from meats and processed food to a plant-based diet.
Today, Benjamin is one of three children featured in an ad campaign by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to rethink school lunches.
“Let’s move hot dogs out of my school lunch,” says the ad featuring Benjamin, a student at the Milanesi School in the Buena Regional School District.
Erin Schmitt said she saw the campaign promoted on the group’s website and asked Benjamin if he would be interested. They submitted his photo, and he was accepted. Erin said she is thrilled Benjamin can help change how people think about school lunch. She said he feels different when he eats processed food.
“He really notices if he eats something, say at a party,” she said.
Benjamin is the anti-hot dog spokesman because it is something he won’t eat.
“I do keep some veggie hot dogs to take to barbecues, but even they are processed so I don’t like to use them too often,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said she would like to see more options in school lunches so that children such as Benjamin can participate. Last year, Benjamin wanted to get lunch at school with his friends, but there were few items he could eat beyond peanut butter sandwiches.
“He loves bean burritos, pasta salads, I think it would be easy to incorporate those things into a school lunch.
Schmitt met with the district food service director earlier this year and is hoping to get soy milk added next year on a trial basis.
“She was very open, and I was impressed with some of the things she was trying to do,” Schmitt said. “But the food service has to pay for itself, and what the kids want is pink (strawberry) milk.”
Two other children in the ads, which are being placed at the Union Station Metro stop in Washington, D.C., ask to remove cheese and milk from school lunches. They also refer people to the group’s campaign website. Click on a link at PressofAC.com to view it.
The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has set new nutritional standards for school lunches that include more fresh fruits and vegetables and less carbohydrates and meats.
Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the PCRM, said childhood obesity is still fueled by high-fat, high-calorie foods provided in school lunches. She said when healthier options are offered, they may be alongside the more “popular” food and kids will pick what they like and are used to.
“Milk is still mandatory,” Levin said. “When there are healthy options, they get smothered in cheese, which is the No. 1 cause of saturated fat in the American diet. Even juice is very high in calories.”
She said they encourage schools to replace hot dogs and burgers with beans, veggie burgers, and whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce.
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