Barbara Cole Gates Puts the “Healthy” Into School Lunches with Faith, Patience, and Gumption
Barbara Cole Gates is a mom on a mission – to teach kids that “nuts and beans are powerful proteins.” This mission launched when her two children were very young. Barb was a daycare provider. She served the youngsters in her care plant-based meals and snacks. “All the kids loved my food, including the beans” she observed. “Kids just need the opportunity to experience them with a positive perspective.”
Now, as the founder and director of the nonprofit Lean and Green Kids, she is reaching a broader (and older) audience, which includes students, educators, school food service providers, and food policy makers.
Her nonprofit is impacting the choices children have in school cafeterias and the way teachers teach nutrition education. In Oceanside, CA for example, elementary school students benefited from “Lean and Green Mondays,” with healthy plant-based choices.
At the 2009 CA School Wellness Conference, Barbara realized something was missing from the discussion. “All the health experts were advocating for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which is great. But then they would round out the “mantra” by promoting lean meats. There was no mention of nuts and beans.” Lean and Green Kids wants to change that mantra. Here’s the new idea. “Health advocates need to start including nuts and beans in the discussion, especially in regards to child and school nutrition programs, where the majority of the participants have a higher risk for diet related disease.” Momentum for her message is growing – to the national level.
Lean and Green Kids sponsored the first ever piece of government legislation calling for plant based vegetarian school lunches. In
2003, with gratifying support from major health, environmental and educational organizations, the Lean and Green Kids resolution (ACR 16) passed! Three more states followed suit. And now, at the national level, policymakers are – at this moment – creating legislation to include plant based vegetarian options in school lunch programs according to a source with the non-profit organization, California Food Policy Advocates.
Lean and Green Kids has deep roots for Barbara. About a dozen years ago, when her first child entered kindergarten, she was dismayed by the lunch options in the school cafeteria. Pizza dominated, followed by chili con carne with cheese and other such nutrient-poor offerings. Barbara realized that while many health-conscious parents had the option to send their kids to school with home made sack lunches, the kids who were relying on free and healthy meals through the National School Lunch Program were not being served.
Barbara dived right in, not bothered by her lack of expertise in school politics. She became known as a rabble rouser, not taking no for an answer in her quest for helping children. She partnered with two other women, and together on the PTA, they made a difference. First, they taught a special award-winning curriculum in a number of classrooms over three years. Kids learned hands-on how to embrace healthy plant foods by preparing it themselves, and teachers learned a new way to educate their students on nutrition. Just as important, the three women shifted the culture in the cafeteria and got new and better choices for all the students.
Digging even deeper, I found that Barbara’s passion for plant-based eating goes back to when she was only thirteen. She and her friends Jennifer and Veronica were upset when they realized what meat was. The three decided to have a contest to see who could stay vegetarian the longest. Barbara won, maintaining a meat-free diet for nine years.
She started to eat meat again at age 22, and lots of it. But when her second child was born, Barbara read Diet for a New America, John Robbins’ famous book. “I felt transformed, like a different person,” Barbara told me. She loved going back to an animal-free diet. “The food was exciting, adventurous, – heavenly.” It was that good.
Barbara’s husband read Diet for a New America while on a two-week business trip. As soon as he returned, he told her “I understand. I’m in.” She still smiles thinking of this landmark moment in her marriage. Her whole family celebrates a plant-based diet now, about fourteen years later, and eats “pretty conventionally.” Some meals are built around whole plant foods, while others rely on meat and dairy substitutes to create pasta, tacos, and veggie burgers.
As a gifted actress and passionate writer, Barbara has created a moving one-woman show Surviving Chrysalis. Aptly named, a chrysalis is the stage during which a caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly.
In just an hour, Barbara takes her rapt audience through the arc of a woman’s life, from young motherhood to the end of life. In this play, she deeply expresses her personal feelings about the cruelty of the livestock industry and the choices each one of us has. But that is only one strand in this complex work, which also encompasses parental love, romance, betrayed love, and the many happy and painful vagaries of human relationships and personal awakening. In her life, as in her play, Barbara weaves all these strands together.
I marvel at how much work this mom, with all the responsibilities of family and ordinary life, puts into a bean-based mission. In dealing with bureaucracy, Barbara finds three qualities essential for success – “faith, patience, and gumption.” None is easy.
In staying so powerful and focused, in just persisting and figuring out a way around the endless obstacles, Barbara shows us that we each make a difference. We can choose to lead change, or we can just go mindlessly along with the status quo. Please be inspired by her example. Educate. Talk to people. Make new choices. Write letters. Use all your gifts and channel your energy. Our kids and our planet need every one of us.
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Blog posting by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet, the smart person’s nutrition book built on sustainable food choices. Enjoy six kinds of whole foods for permanent, hunger-free weight loss and health.