[Ed. Note: Recently a Lunch Tray reader asked a very basic question — how can one parent begin to change school food? I responded to the reader in a series three posts: Part One offered advice for bringing about change at the classroom level (e.g., teacher rewards and snacks); Part Two dealt with changing the school-wide food culture (fundraisers, wellness programs, etc.); and Part Three talked about change at the district level.
Today we hear from Dr. Susan Rubin, a mother of three children and one of the original “Two Angry Moms.” Susan is a former dentist, now a holistic nutritionist and the founder of Better School Food, a coalition of health professionals, educators, and concerned parents, whose mission is to raise awareness about the connection between better food and better health.
Dr. Susan Rubin
My nonprofit, Better School Food ( www.betterschoolfood.org ) is designed to support those who are advocating for a better food environment, so I get emails like the one from this Lunch Tray reader all the time. Here’s what I tell people with questions like this:
The first thing I want to say to this mom is THANK YOU. Thank you for caring enough to take action and most importantly, thank you for thinking beyond your own child. We’re all in this boat together, our kids health is all connected and interdependent.
#1 Find out about the history of food advocacy in your school. Are there any parents who are a few years ahead of you who may have blazed a trail? Start with the PTA/ PTO check out to see if your school has a wellness,nutrition or sustainability committee. Speak with members of these committees and find out what’s going on. What has worked so far? What are the challenges? You don’t need to re-invent the wheel! You might want to volunteer to be on one of those committees. If there isn’t any sort of committee that deals with food, you might want to consider starting one. Also, if it looks like the current committees aren’t getting anywhere, you might want to think outside the box and consider a different approach, start building some numbers…..
#2 Build your numbers and some consensus. You’ll soon discover that food advocacy cannot be a one person show! Also note that food can be a very emotionally charged topic, many people have strong opinions in many different directions. Talk to those who are already involved in committees and also to other parents who are not involved in the PTA. Also encourage those who “brown bag” their kid’s lunch to get involved, they might be very surprised to learn how even a brown bagging student can be impacted by the school food environment. (I’ve written about the Brown Bagging Myth on the Better School Food blog) Also check into who might be allies in the school administration itself. School nurses, teachers, principals can all be potential food advocates who can help you in your quest for better food.
#3 Thoroughly assess the food environment. Look beyond the monthly menu, it only tells part of the story. I would suggest you visit the cafeteria and have lunch. You might want to bring your camera, photo document what you see, both good and bad. This will help you to specifically identify what needs changing in the cafeteria. Take good notes. Observe what students are eating, and what they are tossing into the garbage too. Visit more than once. Bring a friend, too.
#4 Remember, the food environment in a school goes far beyond the cafeteria. You might also take a look into:
- Classroom celebrations
- PTA Events and fundraisers
- Classroom rewards
- Teacher’s lounges
- Other school events
- School garden or composting programs
These are all great points of entry for anyone who wants to shift the culture of food in a school. Some schools, especially those with food service management corporations running the cafeteria, can be quite challenging to clean up.
#5 Once you’ve gathered people and information, create a strategic plan. There are lots of directions you can work to improve the food environment at your child’s school. Here are some potential next steps:
You may want to hold a public meeting at this point, gathering more interested parties can only help. Create a survey for parents and/or students this will help continue the conversation about food in your community. Organize an event, perhaps a pot luck with a speaker or a movie night, or start a book club. Look to other food based organizations for support. One of my favorites is Slow Food USA. They have a Slow Food in Schools program which is a great resource filled with examples of successful initiatives.
#6. Don’t give up. As parents, our bottom line is the health and well being of our kids. The school food environment can undermine your values when it comes to food and health. The most important thing you can do is take a stand for those values. Your kids are watching. Because I’ve been at this for 15 years now, I’ve gotten a chance to see how my work with school food advocacy impacted my kids in the long run. My 20 year old gets it. Her Food IQ is higher than most of her college pals, she also understands the value of taking a stand for something she believes is important. You want your kids to care about real food, right? Then take a stand for food you can believe in and don’t give up.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. - Mahatma Ghandi
#7 Good things take time
This may sound crazy but I’m going to say it anyway. Plan to spend a decade working on helping to build a better school food environment. As your kids get older, you’ll look back on this as time well spent. I know 9th grade seems miles away to a mom of a kindergartener, but trust me, the years fly by.
Hope this helps!
For more information on school food advocacy, please visit www.betterschoolfood.org
If you’re interested in learning more about the work I do with moms and kids of all ages, visit www.Drsusanrubin.com Be sure watch my mission statement video on the right side of the page to fully understand what I’m up to.
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Many thanks to Dr. Susan Rubin for contributing this series. She’s the last of my superheroes to respond, which means that now I’m going to collect everyone’s responses in a single post so that anyone seeking answers about school food reform can find them with one click of their mouse. I’ll let you know when that link is up and running.
[Marvel Characters are TM & © Marvel Characters, Inc.]