“School Food Superheroes:” Janet Poppendieck Responds!

[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 PoppendieckMrs. QChef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — to get their thoughts.]

Today we hear from Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York.  Poppendieck is the author of Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, a comprehensive assessment of our current school food program – how it got the way it is and how to fix it.  Reading Free for All was a consciousness-raising experience for me and one of the primary reasons why I started The Lunch Tray.   Probably to her great embarrassment, I often refer to Poppendieck as my BSLG (beloved school lunch guru) and I’m thrilled that she’s contributing this post today.

Janet Poppendieck

Six Tips for Changing Food at Your  Child’s School

On the whole, I thought Bettina has given terrific advice and hit the high spots.  Good work! Here are a few tips to reinforce what she said.

First, AMEN to you don’t need to do this alone.  Use any of her suggestions for finding like-minded parents.  Not only is there strength in numbers; you can have a lot of fun and meet some terrific people.  I’ve been so impressed with the parents who have shown up at the school food meeting sponsored by the Brooklyn Food Coalition. And speaking of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, look around to see if there is a local group—a food policy council, a chapter of Slow Food, a food bank, a public health department, Kiwanis, Rotary, the Junior League, maybe a social justice organization–that can provide you with a home and some support.  Food quality is certainly a public health issue, and to me it is a social justice issue as well.

Second, remember that people change.  The teacher who is passing out rice krispy treats today may become a leading health advocate next year.  We all have to climb a learning curve.  I have very vivid memories of taking a big bowl of “fun size” candy bars to my afternoon seminar at Hunter College where I teach.  When I realized what I was doing—realized how widespread Diabetes is at the City University—I tried to switch to fruit and found out just how expensive it is. I frequently remind myself of this expression of my nurturing approach to teaching when I am tempted to  criticize teachers who give out sweet treats. I think we need to recognize that the urge comes from a place of generosity and affection for students, and then work with those strengths to promote healthier choices. And you never know when someone will come around.  Just the other day I heard a great story about a food service director who had resisted change for years—and responded  angrily and defensively to  any criticism of her menus.  After  a committee of concerned  parents approached her last year, she suddenly changed. No one know why, but she was ready and began working cooperatively with the committee and implementing salad bars in all her schools.

Third, kids can make a difference.  If you can enlist the students themselves in asking for healthier food, half the battle is won.  My favorite story on this front is about an elementary school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the principal designated chocolate milk as a debate topic.  Children were assigned to research the issue.  Lively debates were held at each grade level.  Then the foodservice removed chocolate milk from the menu and the students adjusted readily.  When parents at other schools in the district asked for the same change without going through the debate stage, milk consumption fell so drastically that the food service provider insisted on restoring the chocolate.  Even for in-class snacks, children might be assigned to draw up a list of healthy options.  The internet has made research feasible for very young children.

Fourth, participation counts. If you are trying to change the food in the cafeteria, anything you can do to increase student participation in the school meal programs makes the food service department’s job easier. This is because the unit cost of providing the meal goes down as the number of students rises.  If you want to see more plant-based options, and you propose a Meatless Monday, you will be more likely to succeed if you can come up with a list of children who  plan to participate if the  option is offered.

Five, Enlist the chefs. Chefs are currently enjoying a sort of celebrity status in our culture, so now is the time to enlist their star-power in helping to promote healthy food in schools—whether it be snacks in class, food in the cafeterias, or healthy fundraisers. This is the cultural moment that the First Lady is trying to tap into with her  “Chefs Move to Schools” Initiative.  So consider reaching out to chefs in your community to help.

Six, remember that this is part of a larger struggle.  The more I read about the connection between our industrial food system and global warming ( See especially Anna Lappe’s new book, Diet for a Hot Planet), the more I become convinced of the tremendous importance of changing the way we feed our children at school.  The federal school lunch and breakfast programs currently provide seven billion meals a year.  That is a big enough chunk of activity to have real impact on the environment and the climate. It is not only the health of our children that is at stake, it is the health of the planet.

*  *  *

Many thanks to Janet Poppendieck for contributing to the School Food Superheroes series!  Our last Superhero, Dr. Susan Rubin is scheduled to post soon, so stay tuned.

[Marvel Characters are TM & © Marvel Characters, Inc.]


  1. Maggie says

    As in her book, Ms. Poppendieck’s thoughts & proposals are balanced, practical, informative and realistic. “Free for All” should be required reading for all school meal activists and school administrators.

    The idea of a debate is an amazing suggestion to get the students to understand and make more healthful choices.

    Thanks for contributing this post.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *