OCEANSIDE — Barbara Cole Gates of Oceanside admits to being a “junk food junkie” most of her life. Some of her fondest memories are of going to Burger King with her son, Jack, before he started school.
“I used to have the realization that we were getting all the food groups because I really liked the Whopper and French fries just like the next person,” she said. “When Lucy was born I was a stay-at-home mom and had more time. Consequently, I was more inclined to pay attention to things that mattered.”
Cole Gates became interested in the connection between food, health and the environment after reading “Diet for a New America.” The book was written by John Robbins, heir to the Baskin Robbins empire who rejected his family legacy to advocate for nutrition, environmentalism and animal rights.
After finishing the book herself, Cole Gates handed it to her husband, Jim.
“He took it on a business trip,” she said. “When he came home he concurred with me. We went vegetarian and cleaned out our kitchen cabinets. This included replacing our home and personal care products with nontoxic, organic and cruelty-free products.”
Cole Gates went public with her campaign when Jack entered public school and she became concerned about the use of pesticides and the absence of a recycling program. First, she approached the food service director about offering healthier, plant-based meals in the cafeteria. Then she went before the school board and superintendent.
“It was the lack of making wellness a priority,” she said. “They ultimately made some changes, but it wasn’t easy.”
Today, Cole Gates has continued her crusade with the establishment of her nonprofit, Lean & Green Kids.
The group’s mission is to put pressure on schools to teach sustainable eating patterns and personal responsibility for serving as stewards of the planet.
The second goal of the organization is to make schools aware that they have a responsibility to provide meals and learning materials that will teach children the merits of making plant-based food choices. Cole Gates has produced a lesson booklet for grades five through eight that outlines five steps for eating the healthiest foods for the human body and the greenest foods for the planet.
Finally, Cole Gates believes that the National School Lunch Program has a duty to make its program accessible to all students. This is so children who are most at risk for diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes can be availed of the benefits of plant protein. Conversely, she believes meals made with plant proteins should be available to students who rely on plant protein for religious, ethical and/or health reasons.
Cole Gates has achieved success with two school districts, and a third is in the works.
“The Oceanside Unified School District has ‘lean and green’ Mondays in their elementary schools where they serve whole grain, plant-based, low-fat and eco-friendly meals,” she said.
“And the Novato Unified School District is promoting plant-based options of lean and green.”
Cole Gates reports that Jack, 16, and Lucy, 14, are thriving as the original “lean and green kids.”
“They are super smart and super athletic,” she said. “Awareness of health and environmental issues has also helped them to grow to become caring and conscientious young adults.”
Last week Cole Gates traveled to the Bay Area where she presented her Lean and Green Kids program to Audrey Rowe, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) deputy administrator for special nutrition programs. Rowe was at an event highlighting the Obama Administration’s priorities for improving school meals and the health of children.
At 6 p.m. Sept. 18, Lean and Green Kids will celebrate their first year as a nonprofit with an Organic Garden Party. Highlights of the gala include live music provided by San Diego band Stone Train, guest speakers and a silent auction. The gourmet, plant-based menu is being prepared by chef and author of “Cook from Your Heart,” Alice Louise Karow. Food has been donated by Jimbo’s, Naturally. The benefit will be held at the Center for a Healthy Lifestyle in Solana Beach. Tickets are $30 per person or $50 per couple in advance and $35 per person or $60 per couple at door. For tickets and more information, visit www.leanandgreenkids.org.