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Miami girl on veg campaign

At age 8, Jasmine Messiah is an enthusiastic vegetarian, toting salads and fruit to school every day since she finds the alternative in the school cafeteria "not healthy.''

The Miami girl has tried to introduce her friends to the benefits of eating a healthy diet -- and now she's the real-life poster child of a campaign aimed at persuading Congress to require schools across the country to offer students more fruits and vegetables.

Posters bearing the girl's beaming face go up this week at the Union Station Amtrak and commuter rail station near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., as part of the campaign by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The group spent $20,000 on the 15 posters; they'll stay up for a month as part of an effort to influence Congress as it reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act.

"President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches,'' the poster states, referring to Sasha and Malia Obama, who attend the Washington-area, private Sidwell Friends School, which offers vegetarian alternatives. "Why don't I?''

Jasmine has also penned letters to the first daughters, Florida's two senators and Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat.

"A lot of schools, including mine, don't offer enough healthy fruits, vegetables and vegetarian meals,'' she wrote to the Obama girls.

Penny Parham, administrative director of food and nutrition for Miami-Dade schools, said the school system has sought to boost nutrition and offers fruits and vegetables -- including green beans and corn from a nearby farm. But she acknowledged that federal guidelines can make it tough to provide nondairy, vegan meals like those promoted by the committee.

"We know we can't be all things to all people but we certainly do try,'' Parham said. "We try to present the best choices for kids, but there's always room for improvement.''

The pro-vegan, anti-animal testing group is hoping lawmakers will put more emphasis on fruits and vegetables when it begins re-authorizing the nutrition act and the National School Lunch Program. The group argues that school lunches are weighted too heavily toward beef and cheese, resulting in record childhood obesity rates.

The $8 billion school lunch program is likely to be heavily lobbied by the food industry, including the dairy and meat industry, which has accused the physicians' group of looking to "create a vegan society.''

Fruits and vegetables, though, have a friend in First Lady Michelle Obama, who, when harvesting the White House garden, noted the reauthorization of the act presents an opportunity to "improve the quality and nutrition of the food served in schools.''

Jasmine, who will start third grade later this month at Miami's Ada Merritt K-8 Center, came to the attention of the group when she accompanied her mother, Sarah Messiah, to Washington earlier this year. Sarah Messiah, a perinatal and pediatric epidemiologist at the University of Miami, had been asked to share her research on the health consequences of childhood obesity.

She brought Jasmine, an aspiring marine biologist, who at one point during the briefing was asked if she had anything to add.

"She took the mic and just went with it,'' said Sarah Messiah, who has raised her three children as vegetarians. "They wanted a candid response from a child about what it's like living with a school lunch program, and she gave them her story. She gets why eating healthy is important.''

For her part, Jasmine -- who counts as her favorite foods grapes, apples, oranges and Caesar salad -- said she hopes the experience will lead more children to eat their vegetables.

"Sometimes I bring in broccoli and carrots and my friends are like, 'Ewww, this is disgusting,' '' she said, "but I think if they tried it more, they'd like it.''

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