In 2005, Amis Cameron was growing increasingly frustrated with the school options for her 4-year-old daughter. The former actress and model, and wife of famed director James Cameron, was not limited by finances or opportunity. Her city of Malibu and surrounding communities had a plethora of options, both private and public, that could offer her child any number of educational programs. As an environmentalist, however, she felt that none of her options promoted the importance of our diligence to protect our resources and live a healthier lifestyle.
So she decided to start her own school
The next year, Amis, along with her sister, opened the MUSE School in Topanga Canyon, California. Starting off with just 11 students (including her then 5-year-old daughter), the school eventually expanded to a 22-acre property in Malibu, purchased by her and her husband. The school, which now has 140 students in elementary and middle school (and will include high school in the fall), focuses on child-centric learning that promotes environmental awareness while still adhering to the educational standards set forth by the state.
The nonprofit private school is currently not accredited, a status the school is currently working towards changing.
All teachings focus on the interconnectivity of the children’s knowledge. The Malibu campus was built with a zero-waste focus. All of the buildings contain materials such as repurposed wood and materials salvaged from other buildings. Even the play structures include repurposed materials. In 2011, they began a program which promoted reuse over recycling to further their goal of zero waste.
The students’ daily curriculum at the two campuses includes the maintenance of the gardens — under the guidance of a year-round gardener and educator. The now 28 beds grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Depending on the season, the harvest provides up to 20 percent of the produce year round. During the summer, the older children sell the food to local restaurants, the proceeds of which go back to the school. They have a goal of making the garden produce 50 percent of the students’ fruit and vegetables.
The Camerons went vegan themselves in two years ago, inspired to improve their health. They also became aware of the impact meat consumption has on the environment. While there are many that believe it is less about meat consumption and more about how livestock is raised and fed, Amis believes that going vegan is the best way to truly take care of the environment. As she told NPR, “You can’t really call yourself an environmentalist if you’re still consuming animals.”
Now the school will also be going vegan.
Many schools, including public ones, have embraced vegetarian (no meat) and vegan (plant-based, no dairy or eggs) alternatives for school lunches. A lot of the change is due to efforts by the “Meatless Mondays” movement. which encourages vegetarian meals at least one day a week. The movement was created as a way to address the large amount of saturated fat in the American diet, a large portion of which comes from meat. Studies showed that reducing meat consumption by just 15 percent could have a dramatic change in health outcomes. For the average American, forgoing meat just one day a week meets that 15 percent reduction.
There are some schools that have switched to completely vegetarian options, largely in communities where the population comes from a similar food culture. Still, the choice to go completely without meat isn’t always financially feasible. Some schools dropped out of the national program for school food when changes were made to include more fruits and vegetables. For schools in so-called “food deserts, where healthy options aren’t available year round, it became too expensive to participate in the program even with federal subsidies.
This, however, is not the case for a school with less than 150 students that is still largely financed by the Camerons and has an annual tuition of more than $23,000 a year.
While the current menu options at MUSE include vegan, vegetarian and meat choices, the goal is to be completely vegan within the next two years. She says that the biggest push back is coming from the parents, who question the efficacy of such a choice. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children have unique needs to ensure a healthy diet. While they don’t say a vegan diet is impossible, they caution that extra attention must be given to make sure needs like calcium, protein and Vitamin B12 are met for children.
The change will be gradual, with much of the delay being spent on educating mainly the parents on what the plant-based school meals will mean. “Food is a very sensitive subject,” Amis admits. Yet the children are the least in need of convincing, she claims because, “The children they live and breathe [the environmental way] already.”