“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the District Level

I recently announced that I and a team of school food “superheroes” — Janet PoppendieckMrs. QChef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — are banding 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’m responding in a series of three posts and then the others will chime in.  You can read the reader’s question and Part One of my answer (change at the classroom level – snacks, treats and teacher rewards) here, and Part Two (change at the school level – fundraisers, school policies, school-wide wellness programs, and more) here.  Today, Part Three.

Change at the District Level

School districts are typically responsible for top-level decision-making when it comes to food:  they oversee the food services group that determines breakfast and lunch menus; they set the district-wide wellness policy, which usually covers the food that may be sold or distributed during the school day; and they decide whether vending machines may or may not be placed in schools (although in some cases this is decided at the level of the state board of education).

Parent (or Menu) Advisory Committees

If your concern is cafeteria food, find out if your district’s food services has a “Parent Advisory Committee,” a “Menu Advisory Committee,” or some similarly named group.   I’m on the Houston ISD Food Services PAC but only recently found out — thanks to fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske — that if your district has outsourced its food services to a food service management company (as mine has), federal regulations actually mandate the formation of such a committee.

So if there is no committee in your district, find out if your food services are being handled by an FSMC (the biggest ones are Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo).  If so, contact your school board trustee and insist that a committee be formed, as is legally required.   Even if your district doesn’t use a FSMC, you may still want to agitate for a committee. After all, parents (through their children) are the direct consumers of the food and are paying for it with their tax dollars.  You have a right to be heard regarding school food menus.

Student Health Advisory Committees or Councils

As discussed in Part One, every school district participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to have a wellness policy in place.  This policy is usually created by a committee of parents, district employees, health service providers and community members.  In my own state of Texas, our state legislature mandated that the Texas Education Agency promulgate regulations requiring the formation of a Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) in each district, and our SHAC drafted our district’s wellness policy.

I recently attended my first SHAC meeting and plan on becoming a regular guest at future meetings.  This group has access to the school board and is composed of like-minded individuals when it comes to student health issues.   Call your district and find out if there is a similar group with which you can raise your concerns.

Going Through Your Principal

As noted in Part Two of this series, I have heard of principals who were able to convince their district’s food services to change the lunch room offerings at their individual school.  E.g., one principal demanded that flavored milk no longer be served and the district agreed to set up a “pilot program” in her school for this purpose.  Principals may also be able to eliminate objectionable a la carte foods, and, in some cases, they may have control over whether vending machines are placed within their schools.  (More on working with one’s principal in Parts One and Two of this series).

Influencing Your School Board

Finally, of course, there is your school board.

With respect to cafeteria food, if your food services are being outsourced, your school board is likely the contracting entity with the FSMC. Each time the FSMC contract is renewed, your school board has the chance to build in contractual conditions that could (theoretically) ensure better food on lunch trays, within financial constraints.  If no FSMC is used, then the district itself operates food services, likely under the board’s supervision.  In either case, the school board is a logical place to share your views about school cafeteria food.

School boards also enter in contracts with third party vendors that can affect the school food environment.  For example, Houston ISD has an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola regarding “pouring rights”  – i.e., the sale of Coke products (which include Dasani water, Capri Sun juices, etc.) at school events and in vending machines.

Whatever your district-level concern, write a letter or email to your own trustee, and/or show up at school board meetings and use the open time for audience members to speak your piece.  As always, there’s strength in numbers:  if your letter is signed by many parents, or if a group of parents show up together at a meeting, you’re far more likely to be heard than if you’re acting alone.

Consider Using the Media

A well-organized group of parents with a specific food-related issue — and a specific proposal for change — can be an appealing story to local news media.  For more on how to contact and work with media, see the MPHA guide in the resources listed below.

A Final Note: Educate Yourself

Before taking any of these steps, be sure to educate yourself about your issue.  If it relates to the school lunch program, for example, nothing will undermine your credibility more than offering suggestions for menu improvements that simply won’t fly under USDA regulations and budgetary constraints.  You can read my School Lunch FAQs as a cheat sheet, but to truly get the big picture, read – yes, you guessed it — Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All:  Fixing School Food in America.  Or if your issue relates to vending machines, e.g., find out what state regulations or district policies may already be in place regarding such sales before you attempt to get the machines removed or their offerings improved.

*   *   *

I’ve only just scratched the surface of the issue of district-level change, but I’m going to stop here and invite our “School Food Superheroes” to add their advice and comments to this, and to the other two parts of my answer to our reader.  In the meantime, here are some valuable links:

Resources for Change at the District Level

Improving School Food Environments Through District Level Policies (Samuels & Associates)

School Foods Tool Kit: A Guide to Improving School Foods & Beverages (CSPI)

Community Action to Change School Food Policy:  An Organizing Kit (Massachusetts Public Health Association) (courtesy of Better School Food)

The Transformation of the School Food Environment in Los Angeles:  The Link Between Grass Roots Organizing and Policy Development and Implementation (Occidental College)

Improving the School Food Environment: Results from a Pilot Study in Middle Schools (Journal of the American Dietetic Association)


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