Yesterday I announced that I and a team of school lunch reform luminaries – Janet Poppendieck, Mrs. Q, Chef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin – are going to band together to answer a Lunch Tray reader’s simple yet profound question — how does one parent begin to bring about change in school food? I call this group of experts my “School Food Superheroes” and after I respond to the reader, they’ll each chime in.
To recap, the reader’s child has just entered public school and she’s dismayed by the cafeteria food, the snacks in the kindergarten classroom (Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos), and the fact that her son is receiving Dum-Dums as rewards from the gym teacher. (You can refer to the earlier post for the full text of the reader’s email to me). She asked where to begin to remedy this situation.
I could devote a book to this topic, and I know from experience that once you dip your toe into the waters of school lunch reform, you can easily drown. So, on the assumption that the reader isn’t looking for a second career as a reformer, my goal here is just to provide some basic advice on getting started. Also, in the interest of brevity, I’m going to divide my answer into a series of three posts: change at the classroom level, change at the school level and change at the district level. Today, Part One.
Change at the Classroom Level
In some ways, making change at the classroom level ought to be the easiest thing to do because there’s the least amount of bureaucracy involved. On the other hand, it can be harder because you’re dealing one-on-one with people (teachers, principals and other parents) who may not feel as you do about kids and nutrition.
Snacks Provided by Parents
The first question I asked this reader is, who is supplying the Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos in the kindergarten classroom? The reader wasn’t sure – parents have been asked by the teacher to supply snacks (pretzels and goldfish, e.g.,) but the teacher might also have supplied these particular snacks.
Let’s assume for the sake of this post that the parents are the culprits here. Navigating these waters can be tricky, and no one — especially a kindergarten parent who’s new to a school — wants to be seen as a strident Food Nazi, critical of what other parents feed their kids. (I’ve written about this sticky issue before in Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato, and even here on The Lunch Tray, we’ve seen sparks fly when parents start judging each other about kids and food).
The first step is to approach the teacher directly, express your concerns, and ask him or her to make another, firmer announcement to parents regarding snack parameters. I’d add here that this would be a good opportunity to suggest to the teacher other, better snacks for the classroom besides pretzels and goldfish. I’m assuming the teacher has no place to store perishables like fruit and cheese, but other, nonperishable snacks might include dried fruit, turkey jerky, whole grain crackers, whole grain pretzels, whole grain cereals that could be divvied up in paper cups when served, etc.
Of course, sometimes the teacher is not your ally. I’ve personally been dismayed by a teacher who handed out jumbo boxes of candy (the kind you get at the movies) to my child for good behavior, and in this case the teacher may actually be the source of the Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats. In that case the next step is the school principal. Again, you never know who you’re dealing with and your principal may look at you blankly and ask what’s wrong with Cheetos. But the hope is that you’ll find a sympathetic ear and he or she can speak to the teacher about snacks.
Both principals and teachers may swayed by anecdotal reports from schools which have seen an improvement in academic performance and a reduction in disciplinary problems when junk food is reduced in the school environment. When teacher and principal bonuses are tied to standardized testing, that may carry some weight.
The key throughout — and this is critical — is garnering support from other parents. When I first got involved in school food reform, I learned that many parents are often stewing in silence, deeply concerned about the state of food affairs in the classroom or the cafeteria but feeling too powerless (or just too tired) to do anything about it. But once they get wind of another parent taking action, they suddenly wake up and say, Yes! Me, too!
So I’d start asking around to see if there are like-minded parents in the class. (Or, to the extent the classroom snack issue is more widespread at the school, you may want to raise the issue at PTA meeting and see if support can be found there.) The bottom line: whether you’re approaching the teacher or the principal, a united front of several parents is much harder to ignore than the single parent who can be written off as some wacky “health nut.”
School Wellness Policies
Under the prevailing federal child nutrition legislation, every school district must issue a wellness policy. Without revealing the reader’s particular school district, I was able to find its wellness policy online without much trouble, along with guidelines promulgated under the policy. (If you’re looking for your own district’s policy, start with the district’s website and if you can’t find it there, call the district or ask your principal). Under the reader’s district wellness guidelines, recommended classroom snacks are listed and, needless to say, Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats are not among them. In addition, the policy makes clear that the use of treats as classroom rewards is strongly discouraged (more on that below).
Unfortunately, district wellness policies are not backed up by penalties if they’re violated. But at least they provide the official mandate of the district and that fact alone should carry at least some weight with the teacher and principal.
Candy as a Classroom Reward
Now let’s turn to the Dum-Dums that are handed out by the school’s gym teacher as a reward. I really hate this practice of giving tiny bits of sugar out for good behavior or good work (e.g., one of my son’s teachers gave just one or two M&Ms or one Hershey’s Kiss for correct math answers). The trap here is that the amount of sugar involved is so small that you feel slightly ridiculous for even complaining. But don’t lose sight of the real issue here. What does it say that the gym teacher (of all people!) is handing out sugar as a reward? Why are we setting kids up to think that they should treat themselves with a sweet for every good deed or consequence — and without regard to hunger?
To try to end this practice, I’d advise essentially all the same steps outlined above. Start by politely asking the gym teacher if other, non-food rewards might be offered instead — and be prepared to offer suggestions (see the resources below for many great ideas). Depending on your success, you may need back-up from other parents, you may need to seek out the principal, and you may need to start waiving around the wellness policy.
I recognize that none of this is easy. For a long time, I gritted my teeth about things I didn’t like in my kids school food environment and I’m sure that by speaking up (and by writing this blog), I’ve earned the reputation among some people as a card-carrying member of the Food Police. But do you know what? Among a whole other set of parents, all I get is gratitude and support. So keep that in mind as you take your first baby steps into school food reform.
OK, those are my two cents on effectuating change at the classroom level. After I post Parts 2 and 3 of this series, I can’t wait to see if my team of school food superheroes has anything to add — or any critiques of my advice. In the meantime, here are some helpful links:
Resources for Change at the Classroom Level
Healthy School Snacks (Center for Science in the Public Interest (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI))
Alternatives to Using Food as a Reward (Michigan State University Extension)
We didn’t address the huge amounts of junk food often served at school holiday and birthday parties, but that’s a classroom issue, too. Here are some resources on that topic:
Healthy School Celebrations (CSPI)
Food-Free Celebration Ideas (CSPI, courtesy of Massachusetts Public Health Association)
[Marvel Characters are TM & © Marvel Characters, Inc.]