My Advice to a Reader on Improving Classroom Snacks – Anything to Add?

Yesterday a Lunch Tray reader wrote to me seeking advice about improving the snacks in her child’s public pre-school, snacks which sometimes include items like highly processed Uncrustables and chocolate milk.   This reader was also disturbed that some classroom projects, like cookie-making, involved a lot of sugar.  She ended her email to me with this:

I want it all: higher standards with food, a good relationship with the teacher, and for my son to not be an “exception” with food at school. I don’t want him to have to sit out because I want the standards to be high for every kid in the school.  I am writing to find some solid advice on how to survive food transitions when working with slow school systems.

After sending my reply to her this morning I thought I might share it here, too, so TLT’ers can add their own advice and relay their own experiences.   Let’s crowd-source this one!  :-)

I’m not posting the reader’s original email to protect her anonymity, but here’s my reply.  I dashed this off at 5:30am so forgive me if it’s a little less coherent than a regular TLT blog post:

Dear ______:

Thanks for getting in touch.

Let me say up front that you’re asking the million dollar question here, and one to which even I don’t have all the answers.  While I feel I’ve made a lot of strides nationally on The Lunch Tray by bringing these issues to the fore and assisting readers around the country at their children’s schools, at my own son’s elementary school my principal has declined to make any modifications to practices like birthday cupcakes in the classroom.  And though she has cracked down on candy rewards given out by teachers, she also just instituted a program where kids get coupons for free shakes if their class has a high rate of homework compliance.

I will say, however, that I’ve made the classic mistake — the very same thing I advise my readers against – of going it alone with the principal.  I’ve frankly been so busy with TLT and with my district-level activities that I just haven’t taken the time to form a coalition in my school.  As you said in your email, “I know transitions require buy in from someone besides me.”  That’s exactly right.

So, first off . . .  It sounds like you’re new at the school but is it possible to reach out to other parents to see if they feel the same way?  E.g., can you strike up conversations in the hall or at pick-up in which you (tactfully) express dissatisfaction with the snacks to see if you get any support?  Or, if the school has a PTA type group, that might be another place to find allies.

Since your preschool is public, you might also want to find your district’s wellness policy (this should be on the district’s website but if you can’t find it, call and ask) to see if there’s any language there which might support your goals.   It’s unlikely but possible that there will be language which encourages your district’s schools to make snacks healthful, and though this policy has no real “teeth,” it does tend to get a principal’s attention to say that he/she is “in violation of district policy.”

Once you have even a few parents on your side, I think it’s then much easier to go to the principal and discuss the issue.  But if you can come armed with more than just your own personal views that the food is subpar, that’s also helpful.  I’ve been very impressed with a website called Rudd ‘Roots Parents, created by the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity.  There you’ll find all kinds of fact sheets and studies which can be marshaled in support of your arguments, such as a sheet which shows how even small amounts of “harmless” sugar in a child’s day can easily add up to far more than the recommended amount of daily sugar consumption.  Facts like that can make a teacher re-think projects like the cookie-making you mentioned.  The more objective evidence you have on your side, the less you will be perceived as either a “food Nazi” or elitist food snob, and more as what you are — a reasonable, concerned parent.

Before proceeding, you might also want to find out to what degree the classroom snacks are controlled by the principal versus the district.  Here in Houston, schools are sent their food by a huge central kitchen and principals have very little autonomy in terms of what is sent.  If that’s the case, then all of the above might be better directed at your district’s Food Services Director (or “Student Nutrition Director” — the title may vary) than the principal.

Finally, I do think that it’s important to be tactful, pleasant and patient when you approach either the principal or the Food Services Director.  Sometimes the issue is cost (processed foods are cheaper than whole, fresh foods, and require less labor and refrigeration).  Sometimes it’s ignorance.  Rarely is the issue pure laziness or someone not caring about kids.

I can’t promise results, but I hope this advice helps.  Good luck!

— Bettina

So, TLT’ers, have I said anything with which you disagree?  Do you have anything to add?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.

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  1. rebecca mcilwain says

    Bettina, I agree 100% with your advice. We at Marathon Kids have developed a program in Austin called Marathon Families where we build and train Wellness Teams to advocate at their school for programs and practices that support active lifestyles and healthy eating. (We have one pilot team in Houston ISD at Lantrip Elem.!)
    Courteous, respectful, strong, ORGANIZED teams of parents and teachers can do amazing things at a school!

  2. says

    Great post and advice, Bettina! I second talking with other parents and I would go so far as to write up a formal letter to give to the principal and teacher of the class to express your concerns. As PTA Health & Wellness Chair at my school I issued this document, with the principal’s permission, to go home with all students and teachers(please feel free to use):

    The response I got from teachers and other parents was very positive. Since sending this out school-wide, our elementary school has seen a rise in healthy snacks sent in with children.

  3. says

    I agree as well. Starting with the school’s Wellness Policy is a great start because I would think it would mention something about encouraging healthy/wholesome food. Also, when you are asking someone to change something, it is best to be prepared with alternative options. Come prepared with a list of alternative snack options like unsweetened applesauce, apples, bananas, string cheese, natural popcorn, etc. Forming a group or committee and speaking directly to the person who is ordering the food are also great options; sometimes the school’s kitchen manager has some say in what is ordered so they could be a good ally.

  4. bw1 says

    “I want it all: higher standards with food, a good relationship with the teacher, and for my son to not be an exception”

    There are a couple problems with the stated goals. First, the desire to “have it all” – the implied entitlement thinking and desire for a life that is all benefits and no sacrifices is what is destroying our nation, especially when one considers that, since this is a public school, “it all” comes from money forcibly confiscated from the people who earned it, i.e. taxes.

    The most interesting cost the writer seeks to avoid is her son being an exception. It just wouldn’t do to have her kid differentiated from his peers and not conforming to the lemming herd. Newsflash – if you want your kid to graduate high school without using illegal drugs, he’s going to have to be an exception, a 10 percenter. If you want your kid to go to a top tier college, he’s going to have to be an exception. If you want your kid to accomplish most of the goals people claim they want for their kids, he’s going to have to be an exception, so it’s never too early to get him comfortable with being one.
    Parents USED to caution their children on the foolishness of living on peer pressure – what happened?

    If your kid eats any school provided food, then your kid is on the dole. If you want to control what your kid eats, then pack all his snacks, and have him eat COMPLETELY on your dime.

    • coolernearlake says

      BW1, doesn’t “on the dole” imply that the reader was freeloading? Wouldn’t it be a safe assumption that this person is paying their federal, state and local taxes like everyone else? And haven’t we as a society, since the founding of our nation, seen the value of an educated population? I believe in the value of public education. There is plenty of room to quibble about the details, but I do not believe that we can have a strong, prosperous society without it.
      Can you, B1, name any other thriving country in the world today that does not provide for public education for its children?

      • bw1 says

        coolernearlake, read this sentence again:

        If your kid eats any school provided food, then your kid is on the dole.
        Did you notice the words “eat” and “food?” What does that have to do with education? Note that, when last this nation’s primary and secondary education system were admired by other nations, primary kids went home for lunch and secondary students took their lunches to school. Now, when schools concern themselves with feeding kids, and meeting a whole spectrum of their NON-educational needs that are properly parental responsibilities, our primary and secondary schools are the laughingstock of he developed world.
        Note also my point was that, if you’re not buying the food, you’re not choosing it. Beggars can’t be choosers. If you are particular about what your kids eat, then feed them on your own dime.
        It’s one thing to live on government handouts, and entirely another to whine that the handouts don’t meet your lofty standards.
        Lastly, it’s not a safe assumption that the commenter is paying federal taxes. The probability is only 53% at best that she is.

        • Uly says

          The government is supposed to listen to the voice of the people. It’s not a dictatorship.

          As far as how respected our educational system is, all the nations who ARE considered the top of the pile provide good school lunches. In many of them, bringing your own lunch would be somewhat odd. Providing a decent, nutritious lunch for children does not preclude providing a decent education as well.

        • Laura N. says

          I have never thought of hungry children as being people “on the dole.” I thought of them as hungry children. Some of us “want it all” in that we want what is best for all the kids in our schools, not just the ones to whom we are biologically related.

        • Tina says


          I sent my children to preschool, and I paid $327 a week for the luxury to do so. So the food my children were fed at preschool wasn’t a government hand out but a service that I was paying for. I was lucky that most of the food served at my children’s preschool was very healthy, but the youngest was extremely picky so I still packed home lunches and snacks anyway.

          I agree beggars can’t be choosers, but you made an assumption about this mother. To say someone is “on the dole” is to basically imply they are on government assistance or getting free lunch. I understand and even agree with much of your argument, I think it was just the way you phrased your comment that may have been perceived as a bit rude.

          • bw1 says

            Tina, there isn’t a morsel of food offered in any public school lunch program at market prices. It’s ALL subsidized by taxpayers.
            Many public schools charge for preschool or all day kindergarten, but the food served is subsidized through the
            USDA, the same government department responsible for food stamps.
            Our government is borrowing 35 cents of each dollar it spends, leaving a debt our grandchildren won’t be able to pay off, to buy votes for incumbents through entitlement programs. It’s not just to poor unemployed drug addicts – middle class suburbanites, and even large corporations, are all hooked on government giveaways.

            Uly, the government is not always supposed to do what the people want – we have a constitution that limits what government may do, which is the real difference between us and a dictatorship.
            I never said feeding kids precludes a decent education, only that it is not necessary for one, and that it is not part of the mission coolernearlake cited to justify it.

    • Laura says

      Excellent response! I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one willing to stick her neck out to fight the good fight.

  5. Andi says

    Laura’s right about the Wellness Policy. I contacted my school district’s nutrition supervisor with my concerns and she agreed to set up a Wellness Committee with health professionals, parents, administrators, teachers, etc. We haven’t had our first meeting yet, but our task is to rewrite the Wellness Policy, which currently says nothing about food rewards or in-class treats.

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