Balanced Advocate Spotlight: Sean Lishansky, Fairfax County Public Schools
The Advocacy team at Balanced has had the privilege of being able to work with some incredible and dedicated parent advocates, and we wanted to take the time to spotlight their hard work to show our appreciation and to give others some insight into what it’s like to be a Balanced advocate. Today we’re spotlighting Sean Lishansky, a parent of two young children in Fairfax County, Virginia, who is leading campaign efforts in the county’s school district of nearly 200,000 students. Fairfax County is lucky to have such a dedicated community member championing a healthier food system for its students and future leaders.
Here’s what Sean has to say:
Why is this cause important to you?
When I was 10 years old, my cholesterol was 195. I ate a lot of fast food, but lunch at school certainly didn’t help either. By high school, it ballooned to 230 and I had chest pain almost every night, so my doctor gave me an EKG. He talked to me about being put on cholesterol medicine, but he said once you start it, you are generally on it for life, so since I was so young he wanted to wait and see.
A few years later, I took a health class in college and watched a video of open-heart surgery, learned about inflammation in your body and learned about why you should eat your veggies. The professor was amazing, and his message was “let food be thy medicine.” I went plant-based pretty much overnight and felt like a new person two weeks later. I got my cholesterol checked the next year, and it was down to 102. And now 12 years later, all of my blood work is better than it was in high school—HDL, LDL, triglycerides, blood pressure—and everything dropped to the bottom of the normal range right away.
I now have a 3- and 1-year-old who will be entering FCPS schools very soon, and I just want what’s best for them. Kids in elementary school are at the mercy of their cafeterias during the school day. If known carcinogens like bacon aren’t offered to them at breakfast, they won’t eat known carcinogens. If foods that are known to clog our arteries and cause a buildup of plaque aren’t offered to them at lunch, then our kids’ hearts will stay healthy. It is that simple—and it’s our job to protect them!
What do you think is the biggest challenge of menu advocacy?
Unfortunately, there are so many mega-rich food groups donating millions of dollars to politicians and lobbyists to fight scientists’ concerns about harmful ingredients in our food. I was Googling how big food companies are fighting food labeling and so many common-sense regulations that would protect us, and it took me down a horrifying rabbit hole.
I was looking into a candy lobbying group that has spent millions to ensure they can keep using food dyes like red 40 and yellow 5. The entire board of the lobbying group was made up of all the CEOs of the biggest candy companies using these dyes, which have caused kidney tumors and immune system issues in mice and a host of issues in kids. I truly believe they know they are hurting our kids but only care about their profits, and it’s so infuriating.
What do you hope your campaign will accomplish in Fairfax County Public Schools?
My hope is for FCPS to lead the way and offer the healthiest school meals in the country. I want us to be number 1. That’s the ultimate goal. I hope one day the food we serve is so healthy and delicious that everyone else around the country strives to be like us, and our Food and Nutrition Services department flies around the country showing other districts how to get there.
What would the ideal menu look like to you?
I want to see more beans, lentils, chickpeas, whole grains, vegetables—you can make the most amazing meals and sauces with just whole foods. My kids love mac and plant “cheese,” for example. For the cheese sauce, I put cooked potatoes and carrots in a blender with tahini, nutritional yeast, apple cider vinegar and garlic powder, and top it off with a sunflower seed crumb topping. Fairfax County’s amazing food staff can easily do this, on site and fresh every day, but they have to be given the tools and resources to be able to nourish our kids’ bodies and help them thrive!
What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting involved in advocacy with Balanced?
I read about other school districts, like Santa Barbara and New York City, voting to ban processed meats and other unhealthy foods in schools, and then I came across Balanced, which had already analyzed the menus of the 25 largest school districts, giving Fairfax County a “C,” due to an overemphasis on health-harming foods and Group 1 carcinogens. I learned that another parent was already in touch with Balanced and was putting together a team of volunteers to lead a healthy menu campaign in our district, with Balanced’s complete support. I was so relieved to find that there was an organization out there that was able to help us. We now have bi-weekly video meetings with two Balanced staff members, and they are absolutely incredible, leading the way on our campaign based on our input and concerns! I am so excited to work with the district’s staff to show them our proposals to make the menus healthier, and I know it will be a win-win for everyone!
Sarah is the Advocacy Coordinator at Balanced. Driven by her belief that health depends on a food system that cares about people, she is passionate about helping community advocates lead effective healthy-menu campaigns in schools, hospitals, and other critical institutions. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org