“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the School Level

Last week I announced that I and a team of school lunch reform luminaries — Janet PoppendieckMrs. QChef 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’m taking on three aspects of this question – change at the classroom, school and district levels, and then I’ll ask this team of “School Food Superheroes” to chime in.

You can read Part One of my answer (change at the classroom level) here.  Today, Part Two.

Change at the School Level

While the issues we discussed in Part One (junk food kindergarten snacks and candy being given as a reward) are taking place in the classroom, they also reflect the larger food culture of the school, which extends to customs regarding birthday treats, items sold for fundraisers, food served at class parties, and more.  (I regard the food on the cafeteria menu and the issue of vending machines as primarily district-level issues, to be discussed in Part Three).  So how do you go about changing that culture?

Enlist Your Principal

As discussed in Part One, a sympathetic and like-minded principal opens the door to all sorts of possibilities.  For example, our district serves flavored milk in the cafeteria (my views on that here, although I’m possibly reconsidering) and I’d always assumed that individual schools had no choice in the matter.  Then I heard about an elementary school principal who, after seeing a presentation by Chef Ann Cooper, simply marched up to the General Manager of Food Services and demanded (successfully) that the district stop sending flavored milk to her school.   This same principal also succeeded in drastically reducing the number of “a la carte” foods (chips, dessert, etc.) sold on the lunch line.  Similarly, I once met a dynamic culinary arts teacher in my district, Kellie Karavias, who worked with the principal at her former school to completely integrate health and nutrition programs throughout the day, including the building of an in-school, instructional kitchen, “Five a Day Fridays” where children bought fresh fruit and vegetables from a cart each week, and an after-school program that offered counseling and exercise to obese children and their families.

And what if your principal has no interest in such improvements?  That’s where parental pressure comes in.  As we discussed in Part One, a single parent agitating for change is easily dismissed, but a large group of parents is much harder to ignore.   Start by speaking to your own friends to see how they feel about these issues.   Get on the agenda at the next PTA meeting to raise your concerns and offer your proposals.  Ask if you can send out a survey to the school at large to see how other parents feel about your issues.  If that’s rejected, privately circulate a petition and collect names that way. Whatever it takes, the more people on your side, the more you can accomplish.  (And don’t forget to include teachers.  They’re often on the front line, dealing with children who are tired and/or excitable after a lunch of empty calories from the a la carte line, and they may be your best allies.)

Also, as discussed in Part One, your district’s wellness policy, while not backed by penalties for violation, can still give you something to hang your hat on when you’re trying to justify the need for change.  In addition, many of the resources listed below provide ample statistics and support for the need to reduce childhood obesity and its associated diseases, all of which can be included in your presentation to the principal and/or to parents.

What Exactly Can We Change?

Because I’m trying to keep this post a readable length, here’s just a bullet point list of ideas I’ve heard or read about that are changing schools’ food culture around the country.  Resources are listed at the end of the post:

  • Create the role of “Wellness Coordinator” at your school and have this person (maybe you?) take steps to enforce the wellness policy and oversee related programs, like the ones discussed below.  A similar idea is creating a Wellness Committee as part of the PTA, to be charged with these same issues.   Either way, consider coming up with written, school-wide policies regarding what constitutes an acceptable birthday treat, classroom snack, fundraising item and/or holiday party offering.
  • Start a kids’ wellness club, an after-school activity that teaches kids about fitness and nutrition, and possibly even cooking if facilities exist.  Such a group enlists kids themselves in spreading the word about good eating habits, thus changing the school’s culture from within.
  • Start a school garden and enlist parents (or outside community volunteers) to help work in it with children and cook up the harvest.  Or, better yet, see if your area already has a gardens-in-the-schools program that might work with you on this project.
  • Volunteer to work fruits and vegetables into the school day.  My fellow HISD Parent Advisory Committee member, Mary Lawton, arranged for the donation to her school of free fruits and vegetables from a local grocery chain, which parent volunteers then cut up and served at Field Day and other events.  Mary also got permission to teach kids in the classroom about the “Five a Day” program, using materials provided by Dole.
  • Take on the issue of candy fundraisers.  Candy is a cheap and easy sell, and it’s hard to wean a school off such fundraisers, but there are many other cheap and attractive items that can be sold.  See resources below for ideas.
  • Assuming your district is offering healthful foods on the lunch line, consider gathering a group of parent volunteers to act as new food “boosters” in the cafeteria – handing out “I Tried It” stickers and praise for kids who taste new, healthful foods.  (More on that in my Houston Chronicle op-ed, here.)
  • Contact your district’s food services and ask if your school can be part of a pilot program to eliminate whatever is bothering you in the cafeteria, whether it’s flavored milk or chips and desserts sold “a la carte.”  This is a long-shot, but, as noted, I’ve seen it happen in my own district.  (More on this in Part Three.)

Be Prepared for Opposition

As I discussed in my post, “Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato,” you may find to your surprise that the loudest opponents to change are actually other parents.  Just the other day, a parent wrote me and expressed shock over the reaction she’d received in some quarters when she tried to reduce sugary treats at school.  But keep in mind two things: (1) the cultural tide is clearly moving in your direction — not theirs; and (2)  “libertarian” arguments in this context just don’t hold up.  As I told a pro-birthday-cupcake reader in “The Birthday Cupcake Debate Heats Up,” you can smoke all you want in our free society, but you can’t do it in an elevator or office where others have no means of escape.  Similarly, while my child is captive to a school environment for seven hours a day, I have every right to ask that you keep your sugary and processed treats at home.

A Confession

I’ll end with a confession.  To date, my forays into school food reform have been at the district level (through our PAC), and through the writing of this blog and newspaper pieces.  With the exception of sending some plaintive emails to our principal about teachers handing out candy, I’ve been pretty quiet about things I see happening at my own school.  But now it’s time for me to walk the walk, too.   My school’s next PTO meeting is at the end of September and I plan on proposing the creation of a Wellness Committee to address many of the same issues discussed here.  I’ll let you all know how it goes.

*   *   *

After I post Part Three of this series next week, I’ll invite our “School Food Superheroes” to add their thoughts.  And please, if you have a story to share about change in your school, take a second and post it in a comment.

Resources for Change at the School Level

Make a Difference at Your School (CDC)

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

Sweet Deals:  School Fundraising Can Be Healthy and Profitable (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI))

School Foods Tool Kit (CSPI)

Better School Food Action Plan (Dr. Susan Rubin) (check out this entire site for great resources, including the Tools section)

The Lunch Box (Chef Ann Cooper) (another site full of resources)

Changing the Scene: Improving the School Nutrition Environment (USDA)

Making It Happen:  School Nutrition Success Stories (USDA)

School Food Policy Resources (Public Health Nutritionists of Saskatchewan Working Group)

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  1. Mendy says

    I missed the cupcake post back in May, but I love the second-hand smoke argument. So true…
    It sure helps if someone in administration – like the principal – is on your side, but this doesn’t seem to happen very often. Like the parent you spoke of today, I was also shocked at the reaction I got when I tried to change things at my school. You assume everyone will want to do what is so obviously best for kids.
    You have some great ideas for parents in your pst today today. I sure hope all goes well at the PTO meeting later this month. Are you taking a posse with you?

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Mendy: I’m pretty sure I’ll have some support in the meeting, but I can’t predict what sort of opposition there may be. Fingers crossed! – Bettina

  2. Tracy says

    If you google Nutrition Detectives you can download materials for free and order the DVD’s (at a fairly cheap price) to help educate students. You can preview the DVD’s for free too!

  3. Allison says

    I’m a pta mom who wants to change to the system in my kids school. There are a number of things, but my focus is the food my kids consume at lunch.

    What can I do?

  4. Bettina Elias Siegel says

    Allison – Normally I’d write a much longer answer but since I’m in the middle of this pink slime petition campaign, let me point you to one of the best resources on the Internet for people getting started in trying to improve school food on a local level. It’s called PEACHSF.org (Parents, Educators & Advocates Connection for Healthy School Food (www.peachsf.org). It’s written by Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco, and it provides a wealth of practical information. Good luck!

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