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by Eliza Barclay
June 08, 2014
As we've been
reporting, the quest to get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into
public schools has once again gotten political.
But in spite of the
federal standards for school nutrition, "changing a school lunch cafeteria,
especially those that participate in the National School Lunch Program, it is
like turning around the Titanic," says
director of nutrition for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Education.
However, if you happen to have performed in the movie Titanic, as
Suzy Amis Cameron did, and you
happen to have founded a private school that you and your world-famous director
husband support, as Amis Cameron also has, then maybe revamping a school
cafeteria isn't such a tall task. You might even be able to eliminate meat and
dairy altogether, and create the first plant-based school in the U.S.
A lot of schools lately have been making incremental changes towards more
plant-based options, says Levin. Take the Meatless Monday program, which
is now in
hundreds of K-12 public and private schools. One public school, P.S. 24, in
Flushing, N.Y., even went
But Amis Cameron's plan for MUSE School CA, the environmentally focused school
in Calabasas, Calif., she founded with her sister, Rebecca Amis, in 2006, is
even more ambitious.
"We are gradually moving towards a plant-based menu because we do call ourselves
an environmental school," Amis Cameron tells The Salt. "Within the next year and
a half we will be plant-based."
Private schools like MUSE School CA, of course, have a lot more flexibility when
it comes to deciding what goes on, and what comes off, the menu.
Already, the school has a strong seed-to-table program that's producing fresh
fruits and vegetables grown by its 140 students. They're guided by the school's
full-time, year-round gardener and educator,
He and students at the school's two campuses in Malibu Canyon have built 28
raised beds to grow peppers, greens, tomatoes, herbs and other edibles, plus
flowers. The older students will also selling some of the food grown over the
summer to local restaurants.
Hudak says now that the schools are growing produce year-round, they can supply
up to 20 percent of the food consumed in the cafeterias, depending on the
season. "Once we really get cranking, I think we'll be up to 40 or 50 percent,"
The Origins Of MUSE School CA
Food played a role in sparking Amis Cameron' motivation to start the school in
the first place. She and her husband, James Cameron, one of the world's most
successful directors, (yes, Avatar, the Terminator films and Titantic) have five
children, including one from her previous marriage. The family splits its time
between their home in Malibu, their ranch in Santa Barbara and their 3,500-acre
farm in New Zealand.
As she phased out modeling and acting in the late 90s, Amis Cameron focused on
her children and their education. And as she did, she says she became
increasingly frustrated with the schools they were in: "They were really wanting
to put our children in a box."
Then in 2005, Amis Cameron was driving her 4-year-old daughter home from school,
and heard her daughter describe a math lesson with candy.
"The school she was going to - that touted itself as an environmental school -
was teaching my child to count with M&Ms," Amis Cameron says. "And everything in
my life came to a screeching halt."
She and James started talking about the possibility of starting their own school
for their children and other kids' whose parents were looking for an alternative
to the schools in Malibu.
"Jim was trying to decide between doing more deep ocean exploration, or make a
little film called Avatar," says Amis Cameron. "He decided to make Avatar, and I
decided to start MUSE. And off we went in our different ventures. Now 9 to 10
years later, it's all coming full circle, dovetailing."
While MUSE School CA has grown to 140 students - two are Camerons and half
receive financial aid - it's still not an accredited school, though Amis Cameron
says they're working on that.
She and her sister Rebecca have tried to walk the sustainability talk on campus,
using recycled materials to build the classrooms, installing
"flowers" designed and donated by James to power the school with renewable
energy and by hiring a resident falconer whose hawks eat rodents and eliminate
the need for pesticides.
The Camerons Go Vegan
Over time, the Camerons' environmentalism - which features heavily in the
ecological destruction narrative of Avatar - has become more and more centered
The turn happened, Amis Cameron says, when the couple went vegan in 2012 after
watching the documentary Forks Over Knives. The film emphasizes the health
benefits of a plant-based diet, and that initially compelled them to empty the
cupboards and fridges of all dairy and meat products.
"But what has really been a major eye opener is the connection between food and
the environment," says Amis Cameron. "Now, we're benefiting greatly from eating
plant-based, as are our children, but the environmental piece has become really
our sole focus."
Specifically, Amis Cameron says, she's appalled by all the
water and grain it takes to produce meat and dairy, and all the greenhouse
gas emissions, waste and pollution that process generates. And everything she's
learned lately about animal products and the environment has coalesced into a
singular conviction: "You can't really call yourself an environmentalist if
you're still consuming animals. You just can't."
While there is a consensus that the meat industry has taken a heavy toll on the
environment, few people agree on what to do about it.
And many environmental scientists are not convinced the solution is for everyone
to give up animal products - especially people in the developing world who
haven't had ready access to it.
One recent study
we reported on argued that to prevent more greenhouse gas emissions from the
livestock sector, we'll get the biggest bang for the buck by helping producers
become more efficient and keeping land from being converted for grazing. The
researchers say that while consumers in rich countries could stand to eat less
meat, it's not realistic to expect us to give it up entirely.
"It's not a matter of giving up meat. It's a matter of shifting to other kinds
that have less climate impacts," one scientist told us. So, not as much beef and
pork, and maybe more
farmed fish and
we've interviewed, argues that avoiding animal products is still the most
powerful decision a consumer can make - more significant than buying a hybrid
car or LED lightbulbs.
In addition to transforming MUSE School CA into a vegan school, Amis Cameron is
writing books on the environmental impacts of meat production for different
demographics – moms, teens, children and thought leaders, she says. The Camerons
also regularly give speeches where they talk about their new-found veganism and
why they're primarily motivated by concern for the planet.
"Any extra bandwidth that we have is spent on that piece and ... bringing that
message out in to the world," she says. "We have an amazing platform."
But even with all their influence, Amis Cameron admits that it hasn't been easy
to convince other parents at MUSE School CA that the chicken, turkey and cheese
currently served at the school have to go.
"Food is a very sensitive subject for so many people," she says. "People have
their cultural reasons for eating meat, their traditional reasons, their likes
and dislikes. But slowly we are offering educational programs through MUSE, for
not only the children, mainly for the grownups, because the children they live
and breath [the environmental way] already."
Is Vegan Healthy For Kids?
Levin of PCRM says that a vegan diet can be healthy for kids – even the Academy
of Nutrition and Dietetics
has ruled kids can get everything they need from plants alone.
"Most people assume it's so hard to make kids eat vegan – that it's easier to
give kids them the chicken nuggets and the milk, and the cheese," says Levin.
"But I don't think anyone could defend that they would be less healthy by not
consuming animal products."
And while Levin sees MUSE School CA's move towards a vegan menu as an anomaly,
she says she applauds what Amis Cameron is doing.
"They might be in a privileged position to advocate for dietary choice, but it
ultimately shows other people how effective it is," says Levin.
And, Levin adds, many plant-based foods, like rice and beans, aren't
prohibitively expensive for schools. "It shouldn't be an entitled program. You
don't have to be rich to be plant-based."
The Camerons were the initial MUSE School CA donors, and continue to supply
start-up funds as the school has expanded from elementary to middle to a high
school slated to open this fall. But Amis Cameron says the plan is for the
school to become self-sustaining.
"We've capped what we give, and we decrease the amount every year," she says.
"But gosh, it's a great place to be a philanthropist."