The School Nutrition Association and its biggest backers—the meat, dairy, and other junk food industries—would have you believe that getting kids to eat their veggies is impossible. Instead, their tactics imply, we should simply keep feeding them meat, greasy pizza, fatty cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets: foods that are making them sick. But schools across the country are proving otherwise.

The meals rich in fruits and veggies at MUSE School in California, Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, and Desert Garden Montessori School in Arizona, for example, are so healthy they’ve earned the school’s founders and nutrition directors the Golden Carrot Award. Created by the Physicians Committee, a nonprofit of 12,000 doctors, the award recognizes food service professionals who have made an extra effort to improve the healthfulness of school lunches by providing high-fiber, cholesterol-free, plant-based menu items to students.

ADVERTISEMENT
Making school lunches more nutritious is not only possible; it’s an imperative. Citing skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the chronic disease crisis, First Lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaWhite House: Obama has 'no plans' for media career after leaving office Obamas light their final White House Christmas tree Tom Ford declined to dress Melania Trump 'years ago' MORE, policymakers, public health advocates, and even the military have long been calling for improvements to the National School Lunch Program. Some progress has been made, but it’s nowhere near enough to tackle the health challenges children face.

Our nation’s kids deserve more than an apple here and a sprig of lettuce there.

Don’t get me wrong; as a physician, I am thrilled that children are eating more plant-based foods. Fresh produce, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are nutritional powerhouses that study after study has shown to be quite literally lifesaving. Eating at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables per day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke. Many fruits and veggies have protective effects against certain types of cancer.USDA data show that kids consume far fewer fruits and vegetables than they should—around just two servings per day—so the more we can encourage them to eat, the better.

But in addition to discussing what should be added to lunch trays, we must also talk about what should come off. As long as meat, eggs, cheese, and other dairy products are school lunch staples, we will not conquer America’s epidemic of chronic disease.

These foods have been solidly linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other health problems—the precursors of which develop incredibly early in life. In fact, diets high in animal protein are associated with a fourfold increase in the chance of dying from cancer or diabetes—making heavy meat and dairy consumption just as dangerous as smoking. Processed meat and dairy products are the major sources of fat, calories, sodium, and cholesterol in children’s diets.

That’s why schools are moving them to the sidelines or getting rid of them altogether—as is the case at Golden Carrot Award winner MUSE, where students will enjoy 100 percent plant-based meals beginning next year. One of last year’s winners, The Active Learning Elementary School in Queens, N.Y., became one of the first public schools to adopt an all-vegetarian menu. Many others are well on the way as they recognize the nearly endless benefits plant-based foods offer for children’s health and academic success.

There are some things we are forced to compromise on. But the health of our children is not one of them. They deserve healthful, plant-based meals every day.

Join the movement and learn more at HealthySchoolLunches.org.

Barnard is an adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He is one of America's leading advocates for health, nutrition, and higher standards in research.