“School Food Superheroes:” Dr. Susan Rubin Responds!

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 8, 2010

[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.

Now I'm yielding the floor to my personal school food "superheroes" -- Janet Poppendieck, Mrs. Q, Chef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin -- to get their thoughts.]

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.

*  *  *

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.]

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Raine October 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Hi Bettina – I love your blog, lots of great information! I spent over a year working on the school lunch initiative in my district. Starting in 2008, I sprearheaded a campaign to get the parents to start noticing what kids were eating. We had a meeting with the school district dietitians to get the ball rolling. Then for the next year I and several other moms tried to work with the school superintendent and team of dietitians to make changes. We brought Dr. Susan Rubin and Amy Kalafa’s movie to our town – Two Angry Moms. Our attendance to this event, despite all the press it received, was only about 60 people (in a town that has 200,000 plus population – Boise, ID). Then we spent months and months presenting scientific information and data to the dietitians to try and get things to move. Nothing ever happened. Zilch. My partner who was the co-chair with me of the committee we worked on continued as she had children still in the public school system and I took my son out for a year to homeschool (we had already spent several years homeschooling before his 2nd grade year spent in the public system) . Now, the same woman and I each have our children in a different educational environment – a public charter school. There is no lunch program at our school yet – the principal wants to withhold serving lunch for the time being due to all the politics of trying to get satisfactory food in the school to begin with. So we pack lunches for our children. So the two of us are the co-chairs, once again, for our school’s “lunch committee” where we create educational materials, recommendations, and events/opportunities for the parents to become aware about what they are serving their kids for breakfast and lunch everyday, and how that greatly impacts their children’s abilities to learn, grow, and develop. So far we haven’t done a lot except design a small brochure with very basic and minimal suggestions to keep kids on track and not eating junk. I have a copy of an amazing presentation from the Weston A. Price Foundation called Nourishing Our Children that I have been trying to find an suitable environment and audience to show to the public. Nourishing Our Children goes beyond telling parents to feed their children healthy food – it goes into great detail with scientific evidence as to how the industrial food system is making our children obese and sick. It talks about traditional foods as the tools with which to bring our children back from a life slated toward disease and illness and into robust health where they can be free of weight issues, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dental problems, mental and emotional disorders like depression, ADD, ADHD, and other related (even autism). There is a particular focus on traditional foods as eaten all over the world by people for thousands of years, as studied by Dr. Weston A. Price in the 1930s during his research in traveling all over the world to determine the cause of degenerative illness in his patients. He found that people eating non-processed foods and indigenous diets in many places around the world didn’t have the health problems we experience in developed countries like the United States – and that those diets are particularly rich in fat and proteins from healthy animals and other real food sources.

So, thanks for doing what you do! I really appreciate finding blogs like this, it’s such a worthwhile effort! I have spent some time writing about school lunch topics on my blog as well, but have recently been focusing on wider subjects in the sustainable food system as they pertain to government policy and activism. I’m attending the Weston A. Price Wise Traditions annual international food/nutrition/health conference in Philadelphia next month and I’m very excited to connect with other professionals who care about this very important subject of sustainability and nutrient-dense foods. I’ll be writing about what I learn on my blog in the weeks and months to come. Cheers to you and thanks again, for doing your part! :)

Reply

Dr. Susan Rubin October 8, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Hey Raine,
Notice the last point I made in this piece….#7 Expect to spend a decade and know that it is time well spent! Like you, my focus now extends well beyond school food to include the bigger picture: our broken food system. IMHO, the biggest issue our kids will be facing is not obesity, it will be climate change, peak oil and economic instability. This is why we’ve all got to get our hands dirty and build more gardens.
I hope to hear more about your food success in your new charter school.

Reply

Raine October 8, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Hi Dr. Susan – nice to hear from you! Yes, I did see the decade of time that you mentioned in your list of things to do to change school lunches. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to expect in our town because (and I forgot to mention this), I have a good friend who is a nutritional consultant for cancer patients and knows a lot about nutrition who has six children, and spent the better part of her children’s years in school in this city trying to change the school lunch program as well – she said 7 years, but I am betting it was longer with six children and because of her diligence and knowledge in this field. And now my friend Tracy and I have spent two additional years, and gotten nowhere. So I’m not sure what to say about what the future holds. I know one thing, the school district is as rigid as can be and it might be the case that changing our school lunch issues might have to be something that is done indirectly in our community and not directly through the school district itself. In other words, some other events/activities that show the school district how as a community we need to become more sustainable-minded instead of relying on industrial, processed sources for meals. I don’t know exactly what shape that will take just yet, but I’m working on it. :)

Reply

Dr. Susan Rubin October 9, 2010 at 7:44 am

Have you seen the book list and the movie list on the Better School Food blog? Both can help build community and raise Food IQ.
check it out!
http:www.betterschoolfood.com

Reply

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