A doctor's perspective: Diet hazards lurk for students as they return to in-person schooling

Gov. JB Pritzker has announced plans to expand access to food assistance for 200,000 more Illinois schoolchildren through the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program - with a total of one million children covered. As an Illinois family physician, I was pleased to hear this news. Many students, my patients among them, attend school remotely sitting at the kitchen table, but on many days there's not enough food to put on that table once the schoolwork is cleared away.

Once students return to in-person learning, they will again be able to get free and low-cost meals at school - as they did before the pandemic. But for now, the Electronic Benefits Transfer Program will help children who choose remote or hybrid learning - as they stay within the family pod to minimize their exposure to the virus.

In fall, the risk from the coronavirus may be receding but another hazard is present - greasy food in the school cafeteria. High fat foods are linked to childhood obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Type 2 diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes, but I now see prediabetes and diabetes in young people.

It's important to note that diabetes and other life-threatening conditions can be prevented and even reversed with a healthful plant-based diet. I've seen this in my medical practice, and you can find plenty of evidence in the scientific literature. One example is a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics that found that obese children who followed a plant-based diet focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improved their weight.

To help achieve the best possible health outcomes for all Illinois children, I call on Gov. Pritzker to mandate that public school districts within the state offer at least one healthful plant-based option each school day when students return to in-person schooling.

In the autumn, we will have an abundance of Illinois-grown fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains. Meals served in public schools can be made with crops that thrive in our state including peaches, asparagus, strawberries, cauliflower, lima beans and blackberries.

Plant-based options are served in many U.S. school districts, with BBQ Crunchy Tofu, Braised Black Beans with Plantains and Lentil sloppy joes on the menu in New York and Hummus Pizza, Kung Pao Tofu and Carrot Hot Dogs in the lineup for Maine. Plant-based meals have also meant cost savings for some schools, including Oakland (California) Unified School District, which saved $40,000 over two years.

For school food service directors seeking healthful, plant-based protein products, there's at least one major company based in Illinois, Greenleaf Foods, that offers veggie deli slices and other tasty fare. Illinois offers a bounty of flavorful foods and once the virus threat begins to recede, students need plant-based options to build immunity, maintain a healthy weight and keep blood sugar low among other benefits.

The governor and his staff should make it happen.

• Ashwani Garg, M.D., is a family physician from Barrington.

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