Montel Williams' 14-year-old daughter, Wyntergrace, is calling on Congress to support healthy vegetarian school lunch options to help fight childhood obesity.
"The food they serve at my school includes hot dogs that bounce, hamburgers that don't look like hamburgers and iceberg lettuce that does not contain any nutrients at all,'' says Wyntergrace, who has been a vegetarian for two years and was a student at Central Middle School in her hometown of Greenwich, Conn., when she started the campaign. "The vegetarian options are pizza. It should be more fruit, vegetables and other healthy options.''
Wyntergrace is using a multilevel platform to make her case, including a television commercial that aired on Monday, Sept. 7, on 'The Secret Life of the American Teenager,' an ABC Family prime-time drama. But her main focus is to convince Congress to amend the Child Nutrition Act to help schools serve more fruit, vegetables, vegetarian meals and healthful nondairy beverages. The message comes at a time when scores of children across the nation are heading back to school after summer break.
Wyntergrace became a vegetarian after reading a book about how animals are slaughtered. After that, she says, she could no longer consume meat. It also set her on a path to help other children learn to eat better, especially in the African American community.
To that end, she and an adult family friend, Lisa Nkonoki, teamed up with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) to improve school lunches. They started a local petition to amend the Nutrition Act that has now gone national. The effort has garnered at least 98,000 signatures, Nkonoki says, and has been backed by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
"Some of us don't eat right,'' Wyntergrace says in the commercial. "Fast food, junk food, sometimes even our school lunches, have too much fat and cholesterol.''
Indeed, more than 80 percent of Americans believe that vegetarian meals should be available to students who want them, according to a recent survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation.
Vegetarian options would benefit all children, according to PCRM. A veggie burger, for example, provides the same amount of protein as a typical cheeseburger -- 15 grams -- but has only 5 grams of fat, about half of the fat found in a cheeseburger. Also, veggie burgers contain fewer calories and no saturated fat or cholesterol, according to PCRM.
Schools should offer healthy vegetarian options every day, and they should have the funding to make that feasible, says Dr. Neal Barnard, president of PCRM. At least 80 percent of schools serve food that is much too fattening and greasy to meet the government's own nutrition guidelines, he adds.
According to PCRM's Web site, each school day, millions of children eat greasy, unhealthy meals served in more than 100,000 schools and institutions participating in the National School Lunch Program, which is regulated by the Child Nutrition Act. It is believed that these foods contribute to childhood obesity. Healthful vegetarian options, which are low in fat and cholesterol, could help reverse this epidemic, the site says.
Over the past three decades the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for adolescents ages 12-19 and more than tripled for children age 6-11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese children and adolescents are at risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to serious health complications.
PCRM, founded in 1985, is a nonprofit health organization. Its goal is to promote preventive medicine, conduct clinical research and encourage higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.