On Mother’s Day, Look for Me on the New York Times Motherlode Blog

Back in February, I was surprised and honored to be included on a list compiled by Elizabeth Street (with the help of food activist Robyn O’Brien) of the “Top 15 Most Important Moms in the Food Industry.”  I shared the link on Twitter that day, and doing so sparked an interesting conversation with some of my favorite food policy colleagues about whether it’s OK to single out moms in this fashion, whether it does a disservice to fathers and the childless, and whether exalting an activist’s maternal status is, in the end, demeaning.

As you can imagine, it was pretty frustrating to try to have that conversation in 140 character bites, so I later wrote down my thoughts in a longer format.  I wound up sending the essay to the New York Times Motherlode blog and I’m thrilled to report that it will appear there on Mother’s Day, this Sunday.

This is a nuanced topic, though, and even the 800 words I was allotted by the Times didn’t feel like nearly enough to convey all I wanted to say on the subject.  And I’m sure there are some readers who will take issue with my views.  If you’re one of them (or if you agree with me), please feel free to leave a comment on the Motherlode blog when the piece appears so we can continue the conversation.

An early Happy Mother’s Day to all TLT moms!  Wishing you a well-deserved day of love and relaxation.  To help with the latter, be sure to check out this “recipe” from Katie Morford (of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook) for a luxurious, fragrant Mother’s Day bath.  But make sure your family understands this is the only thing you’ll be preparing on Sunday.  :-)


Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

A Lunch Tray Wednesday Buffet!

In the old days on this blog, I’d serve up a “Friday Buffet” of news tidbits that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Today I’m bringing back the Buffet to share these little goodies with you:

Update on Chicken Petition

First, I wanted to let you know that our petition regarding chicken from China is now at 305,000 signatures and continuing to grow.  The petition, and the issue of Chinese chicken generally, will be featured in the Houston Chronicle this week and I’ll share that link on Facebook and Twitter when it’s up.  I will also be writing my own opinion piece for the paper (spoiler:  I don’t like chicken from China! :-) ) and will share that, too.

Two TLT Friends Nominated for IACP Cookbook Award

TLT friends Katie Morford (Mom’s Kitchen Handbook) and ChopChop magazine were both nominated for the prestigious IACP (International Association for Culinary Professionals) award for the cookbooks they released this year.  My past review of Katie’s cookbook is here, and of ChopChop’s here.  Congratulations to both of you!

Mom Activists Unite!

Real Mom Nutrition‘s Sally Kuzemchak had a great post yesterday on food activism, big and small.  It’s a needed reminder for all of us that “activism” can mean petitions and national campaigns, but also just asking your soccer coach to eliminate junk food snacks.  And, as I said to Sally in an email, sometimes the latter is actually a lot harder than the former, because you have to be tactful with someone you know personally — and will likely see again for a long time.

Interesting Twitter Convo

On a related note, throughout the day yesterday I was engaged in an interesting discussion on Twitter with colleagues Casey Hinds, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Michele Simon, Andy Belatti and Nancy Huehnergarth regarding this very notion of “mom activists,”as well as whether it’s OK to call someone a “mommy blogger,” whether women activists are marginalized when they highlight their personal motivations, what motivates each of us to do what we do, and more.  If you’re a Twitter follower, you might enjoy checking out our feeds from yesterday and feel free to chime in as well.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Finally, I was so honored to be named one of the “15 Most Important Moms in the Food Industry” by Elizabeth Street yesterday, in a list compiled with the help of Robyn O’Brien, noted food activist and author of The Unhealthy Truth.  Since this list also included personal heroes like Michelle Obama and Laurie David, and stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba, I’m really not quite sure how I ended up there.  But I am agitating for some sort of induction ceremony, just to be able to catch a glimpse of those awesome women in person!  :-)  Huge thanks to Robyn and Elizabeth Street for the honor.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,200 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Bettina Elias Siegel

My Advice to a Reader on Improving Classroom Snacks – Anything to Add?

Yesterday a Lunch Tray reader wrote to me seeking advice about improving the snacks in her child’s public pre-school, snacks which sometimes include items like highly processed Uncrustables and chocolate milk.   This reader was also disturbed that some classroom projects, like cookie-making, involved a lot of sugar.  She ended her email to me with this:

I want it all: higher standards with food, a good relationship with the teacher, and for my son to not be an “exception” with food at school. I don’t want him to have to sit out because I want the standards to be high for every kid in the school.  I am writing to find some solid advice on how to survive food transitions when working with slow school systems.

After sending my reply to her this morning I thought I might share it here, too, so TLT’ers can add their own advice and relay their own experiences.   Let’s crowd-source this one!  :-)

I’m not posting the reader’s original email to protect her anonymity, but here’s my reply.  I dashed this off at 5:30am so forgive me if it’s a little less coherent than a regular TLT blog post:

Dear ______:

Thanks for getting in touch.

Let me say up front that you’re asking the million dollar question here, and one to which even I don’t have all the answers.  While I feel I’ve made a lot of strides nationally on The Lunch Tray by bringing these issues to the fore and assisting readers around the country at their children’s schools, at my own son’s elementary school my principal has declined to make any modifications to practices like birthday cupcakes in the classroom.  And though she has cracked down on candy rewards given out by teachers, she also just instituted a program where kids get coupons for free shakes if their class has a high rate of homework compliance.

I will say, however, that I’ve made the classic mistake — the very same thing I advise my readers against – of going it alone with the principal.  I’ve frankly been so busy with TLT and with my district-level activities that I just haven’t taken the time to form a coalition in my school.  As you said in your email, “I know transitions require buy in from someone besides me.”  That’s exactly right.

So, first off . . .  It sounds like you’re new at the school but is it possible to reach out to other parents to see if they feel the same way?  E.g., can you strike up conversations in the hall or at pick-up in which you (tactfully) express dissatisfaction with the snacks to see if you get any support?  Or, if the school has a PTA type group, that might be another place to find allies.

Since your preschool is public, you might also want to find your district’s wellness policy (this should be on the district’s website but if you can’t find it, call and ask) to see if there’s any language there which might support your goals.   It’s unlikely but possible that there will be language which encourages your district’s schools to make snacks healthful, and though this policy has no real “teeth,” it does tend to get a principal’s attention to say that he/she is “in violation of district policy.”

Once you have even a few parents on your side, I think it’s then much easier to go to the principal and discuss the issue.  But if you can come armed with more than just your own personal views that the food is subpar, that’s also helpful.  I’ve been very impressed with a website called Rudd ‘Roots Parents, created by the Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity.  There you’ll find all kinds of fact sheets and studies which can be marshaled in support of your arguments, such as a sheet which shows how even small amounts of “harmless” sugar in a child’s day can easily add up to far more than the recommended amount of daily sugar consumption.  Facts like that can make a teacher re-think projects like the cookie-making you mentioned.  The more objective evidence you have on your side, the less you will be perceived as either a “food Nazi” or elitist food snob, and more as what you are — a reasonable, concerned parent.

Before proceeding, you might also want to find out to what degree the classroom snacks are controlled by the principal versus the district.  Here in Houston, schools are sent their food by a huge central kitchen and principals have very little autonomy in terms of what is sent.  If that’s the case, then all of the above might be better directed at your district’s Food Services Director (or “Student Nutrition Director” — the title may vary) than the principal.

Finally, I do think that it’s important to be tactful, pleasant and patient when you approach either the principal or the Food Services Director.  Sometimes the issue is cost (processed foods are cheaper than whole, fresh foods, and require less labor and refrigeration).  Sometimes it’s ignorance.  Rarely is the issue pure laziness or someone not caring about kids.

I can’t promise results, but I hope this advice helps.  Good luck!

— Bettina

So, TLT’ers, have I said anything with which you disagree?  Do you have anything to add?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 4,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel

TLT Guest Blogger: Nancy Huehnergarth on “A ‘Back to School’ Food Reform Call to Action”

Most of us now have our kids back in school or we soon will.  And for some parents, that means returning kids to classrooms rife with unwanted candy rewards, food-based classroom birthday celebrations, junk food sold “a la carte” in the cafeteria, vending machines with sugary juice and sports drinks, and highly processed, chemical-laden school meals.  But what can we do about it?  Today my online colleague and friend  Nancy Huehnergarth answers that question with advice based on her own experience as a mother of two teenage girls and also as a respected consultant on nutrition and physical activity policy/advocacy.  I think you’ll be interested in what Nancy has to say.

A “Back to School” Food Reform Call to Action

by Nancy Huehnergarth

 As “Back to School” fever grips the nation (and our wallets!), I’d like to offer a call to action to every parent in America.  If you don’t like how your children’s schools or teachers are feeding your kids, YOU must organize and demand change.

How do I know this?  Back in the dark ages of the food movement (circa 2002), I asked my school district to remove soda, cookies, candy, chips and candy-coated ice cream from our middle and high school vending machines, and replace them with healthier options.  I was immediately pronounced a “macrobiotic wacko who wanted nothing less than to ban cupcakes from schools.” Strangely, I’d never even mentioned the word “cupcakes” and I’m an omnivore!

Feeling a bit miffed, I collaborated with other concerned parents to organize a district-wide coalition dedicated to improving school food in the cafeteria and the classroom.  Although we struggled for several years to get changes made, forming a coalition and demanding change ultimately led to many of the improvements we were seeking.

Now fast-forward to 2012. Ten years after I first dipped my toe into the roiling waters of school food reform, I continue to hear parents complain about unhealthy food and food practices at school, even as headlines scream about the childhood obesity epidemic. You’d think that our nation’s educators (who are highly educated themselves) would understand the connection between food and health, academic performance and classroom behavior.  But that’s still not the case.

While our nation’s schools should see significant healthy improvements in National School Lunch Program meals this fall, thanks to the Child Nutrition Reauthorization of 2010, most schools still lack sensible policies governing competitive foods (such as foods sold in vending machines and school stores), food given as rewards in the classroom, food fundraising and foods served at classroom parties (yes, there’s that cupcake issue).

Congress did pass legislation mandating that nutrition standards be written for competitive foods in schools but Big Food (the companies that brought you “Pizza is a vegetable”) is lobbying overtime to ensure that these standards are weakened and delayed.

So the question, concerned parents, is this:  Are you going to wait around for federal government action (which could easily take years and be watered down by the deep pocketed food industry) or are you going to demand action in your school district now?

I hope you choose the latter.  And if you do, I have some tips that may help you organize, and successfully create and implement sensible food policies and practices in your school district:

  • Form a coalition – Individuals demanding change can be easily ignored.  A coalition demanding change can’t.  If you want sensible food policies in your school district you will need to organize like-minded parents.  It’s a whole different ballgame when dozens of parents show up at school board meetings demanding healthy vending items, when hundreds of parents send an email to the superintendent asking that the district ban food rewards in the classroom, or when you present the administration with a petition signed by over 1,000 people who want to limit food fundraising.
  • Find a champion – There’s often one enlightened school administrator or board member in every district who understands the importance of good nutrition and healthy school food policies and is willing to take a stand.  Seek out that person who can help you make your case to the rest of the administration and school board.
  • Don’t ask for the moon – When making demands that will improve school food and kids’ health, be reasonable.  Asking for too much to be changed too quickly will turn off administrators.  It’s ok to present the district with a list of changes you’d like to see.  But let them know which are short-term and which are long-term goals.  And suggest a reasonable time frame for changes to be made.
  • Build support and understanding in the school community for school food reform – While you may have found a number of like-minded parents to support food reform in your district, there will be many parents who think your suggestions are wacky.  You need to begin educating them about why healthy food is important.  How do you do this?  Work with the PTA to sponsor forums where local pediatricians or other experts present on the topic of why healthy food is important for children. Write an article on healthy school food for the PTA newsletter. Write an op-ed, letter to the editor or article for your local paper on the importance of school food reform.  Organize and publicize healthy food tastings in your child’s cafeteria (we gave children tastes of fruits and vegetables they might otherwise never try such as crenshaw melon, kale chips and roasted parsnips.) These are just a few suggestions but I’m sure you get the point.
  • If your school district deliberately thwarts school food reform, go to the media – Sometimes you can do everything right and still not make the progress you want.  This was the case in my school district where, after working collaboratively for years with the administration and school food director, we realized we were being stonewalled.  So we went to the media (in our case, the New York Times) and asked them to write an article about how school districts were thwarting food reform. The Times wrote the article and that did the trick.  Suddenly, our district’s school administration began making the changes that they had promised for years.

My final piece of advice is this.  Understand that you have the power to create healthy changes in your children’s school district. Being angry, complaining or fretting doesn’t change things.  Using that anger to organize, educate and demand changes in school district policies and practices, does!

* * *

Many thanks to Nancy for coming by TLT today.  Nancy regularly takes on Big Food in her blog, found here, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nyshepa.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Bettina Elias Siegel

School Food Reform: One-Stop Shopping on TLT

Those of you who followed the “School Food Superheroes” series got the benefit of hearing from me and from five leading school food reformers (Janet PoppendieckEd BruskeMrs. QDr. Susan Rubin and Chef Ann Cooper) on how to begin to change the food environment at your own school (or school district).

Now that the series is concluded, I’ve linked all eight of our posts to a tab at the top of the page called, “New to School Food Reform?”  I hope this link will serve as a convenient, one-stop resource for parents looking for answers and guidance as they face issues like candy rewards in the classroom; junk food for sale in the cafeteria or at fundraisers; or overly processed, subpar food on school lunch trays.

Please feel free to share the link to anyone and everyone who might find it useful.   And remember, whether you succeed or fail in your efforts to improve your school’s food culture, there’s always a supportive community on this blog that wants to hear your story.  Consider sharing your experiences in a comment here or by emailing me using the Contact tab above.

“School Food Superheroes:” Dr. Susan Rubin 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 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.]

“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.]

A Mother and School Food Advocate Tells It Like It Is

As we approach tomorrow’s deadline for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, CNN/Eatocracy has this interview with Dana Woldow, a parent and school food advocate in San Francisco.

I love Woldow’s clear-eyed assessment of the problems schools face in improving food.  For example, although she applauds the attention that Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program has brought to school food, she’s a realist, too:

A lot of the programs the USDA sponsors are based around the idea that every school cafeteria has a kitchen. Well, here in San Francisco, like a lot of school districts in this country, we don’t. We haven’t cooked in our elementary schools in more than 25 years. You can talk all you like about chefs moving to schools and sharing their expertise and that would be great, but we don’t have any place for those chefs to cook. And you can have kids developing recipes from scratch with dark green leafy vegetables and that’s wonderful, but where are these recipes going to be cooked if there is no kitchen?

On the other hand, she does have good news to share from her own district.  After finding out that her cafeteria was operating at a loss, despite heavy sales of soda and junk food, she advocated for a pilot program at one middle school:

It eliminated the junk food from the a la cart program and removed it from the vending machines.  Instead they sold freshly made deli sandwiches, salads, soup and even sushi. ‘Three months after we started our pilot project, the cafeteria was breaking even. Six months into it, our cafeteria was one of two in the school district that turned a profit. So much for the idea that you will lose money if you stop selling junk food in your cafeteria,’ Woldow said.

The next year they expanded the program to every middle and high school. Based on the program’s success, the school board passed a resolution to remove junk food by the start of the 2003-2004 school year.

The entire article is well worth reading, and I’m going to see if I can track down Woldow for a guest blog post on TLT. I’d also like to get more financial data on the San Francisco district to see if these changes could be affordably replicated in my own.

Thanks, Anthony, for sending me the link!

“School Food Superheroes” — Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook) 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 Poppendieck, Mrs. Q, Chef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — to get their thoughts.]

Today, we hear from Ed Bruske, aka “The Slow Cook.”  Ed previously worked for twelve years as an award-winning reporter at the Washington Post (he was hired by none other than Bob Woodward).  These days, Ed tends an “urban farm” in D.C., works as a personal chef for clients with special needs, and teaches “food appreciation” to school children.  He was a co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners , sits on the advisory board of the D.C. Farm to School Network and contributes to food policy blogs such as Grist and La Vida Locavore, as well as the gardening blog Garden Rant. He is a contributing editor for the food access blog, DC Food for All, and is the blogger behind The Slow Cook and Better DC School Food.

Ed Bruske, aka “The Slow Cook”

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So, how much time do you have to change the food your school serves?

I wasn’t even paying attention to the food at my daughter’s elementary school here in the District of Columbia until I had an opportunity to spend a week as an observer in the kitchen. Being a former newspaper reporter, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d stumbled into one of the most compelling stories of our times.

At the same time an epidemic of childhood obesity threatens to rob a generation of its health and bankrupt the nation with a $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses, agribusiness and corporate food processors are making out like bandits. How could the federal government allow this to happen? Perhaps we’re all to blame for not paying closer attention. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually complicit in the trend toward processed junk served as food in school. How can that be?

Yet, for all its faults, the school meal program is one of the most successful federal social endeavors of all time, right up there with Medicaid and Social Security. It started in the Great Depression as a means to help farmers sell their surplus, then morphed in the 1960s into an anti-hunger crusade. Now some see school food as a teachable moment in which the first lady grows a vegetable garden at the White House and kids learn life lessons in how to eat better and stay healthy.

The problem, of course, is that school food operations nationwide have been allowed to slip into a state of perpetual poverty, making them easy prey for corporate vendors and food processors. Meanwhile, our first inclination is to heap more government standards onto the program in the mistaken belief that we can somehow legislate our way out of this mess without providing the money schools need to serve healthy food.

What I’ve learned over a period of months photographing school meals, blogging about them and traveling around the country investigating the school meals program is that while the movement for healthier school food has clearly identified where cafeteria meals go wrong, it has failed to articulate a clear message about what a healthy school meal should look like and how it’s to be paid for. Too many Americans see this movement as “elitist” and unnecessary. They need to be convinced otherwise. In our current economic and political climate, moms need talking points they can take to their PTA meetings and win with.

For starters, the trend toward sugary, processed foods in school has been in place some 30 years now and the results are clear for anyone to see: it’s killing our kids. Sugar, sodas and junk foods made of refined grains are directly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and realted diseases: diabetes, hypertension, athereosclerosis and a surge in cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children. If this continues, the nation will go bankrupt trying to pay its ever-growing health care bills and we won’t have enough healthy young people to defend the country. This can’t go on.

The first order of business should be to remove unhealthy foods from schools, which makes it vitally important that Congress pass the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization currently before it. This legislation would require the USDA to adopt standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that would lower calorie requirements for school meals, meaning schools would no longer be so pressed to use sugar as a cheap calorie boost. The IOM has also recommended bigger helpings of vegetables and whole grains that will help push sugar off the menu. In addition, this legislation would give the USDA for the first time authority to remove all non-nutritious foods from schools, meaning not just in the subsidized meal line but in vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte lines. Parents need to contact their Congressmen and demand passage of this legislation immediately.

On the home front, every school district is required to have a wellness committee and wellness committees can control which foods are served in school. Parents should insist on a seat on their local wellness committee and participate in the deliberations.

In addition, federal law requires that any school district that hires a professional food service management company must establish a committee of parents, students and others to adivse on the menu. Parents should insist that these committees be established and that they be given a seat on them.

Where flavored milk is concerned, parents need to stand up against it and the dairy industry that is trying to scare schools into serving it. So far, the dairy industry is winning the propoganda war on chocolate and other sugary milk drinks by suggesting kids will collapse in a heap of osteoporosis and rickets if they are denied access these products. In fact, research shows that physical exercise–not milk–is the best way to build strong bones and exposure to sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D. The dangers of sugar–and teaching kids to expect sugar with their food–far outweigh the benefits of drinking chocolate milk. Schools need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and should be trying harder–along with parents–to teach kids to drink milk responsibly.

The best and easiest way to teach kids how to appreciate fresh produce may be to install salad bars in every cafeteria. As any parent can tell you, kids generally aren’t crazy about vegetables and are especially turned off by vegetabless cooked to death–the kind they most often see in the cafeteria. Many prefer their produce closer to a raw state, and they can get downright enthusiastic about creating their own meals. But salad bars are an additional expense. Parents need to work with their local schools to see how salad bars can be adapted to individual situations. There’s nothing to prevent local PTAs from raising the funds schools need to install salad bars.

Finally, local and state governments can contribute more financially to making school meal finances healthier. Here in the District of Columbia, a recently passed “Healthy Schools Act” makes our city one of the most generous in the country. The school system already supports the meal program with nearly $7 million in deficit food services spending every year, 25 percent of the budget. D.C. schools banned soft drinks in 2006, and serve free breakfast to any student who wants one. “Healthy Schools” upped the ante by picking up the tab for all students eligible for reduced-price meals. To the federal subsidies already in place, it added 10 cents for every breakfast, 10 cents for every lunch and a five-cent bonus for every lunch meal that contains a locally-grown component.

D.C. parents were involved in the drafting of the “Healthy Schools” legislation. We also were instrumental–along with a newly hired food services director who shares our views–in removing flavored milk, sugary cereals and breakfast treats like Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams from the menu. That’s the power of our daily blog–Better D.C. School Food–and proof of what Margaret Mead said: Never underestimate what a few determined individuals can accomplish.

Still, D.C. schools do not have an overarching plan to teach nutrition education. We’ve recently formed a Healthy D.C. School Food Committee to address that and to lobby for other changes that advance the aims of the “Healthy Schools Act.”

So don’t just complain about the food at school. Get busy and be part of the solution. And by all means keep blogging.

*  *  *

Thank you, Ed, for this thoughtful, informative — and inspiring — post.  I encourage Lunch Tray readers to regularly check out Ed’s Better D.C. School Food.  As I’ve said here many times, his blog is not only of interest to DC parents; it’s become one of my go-to sources for information on school food reform.

As the rest of my team of experts shares their thoughts in this “Superheroes” series in the coming days and weeks, I’ll post their responses here.

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

“School Food Superheroes” – Chef Ann Cooper Responds!

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, Chef Ann Cooper responds.  As most of you know, Chef Ann, aka “The Renegade Lunch Lady,” is a chef, author, educator and leading advocate for better school food for our children.  She’s the founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), the nonprofit behind The Lunch Box – a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and community connections to support school food reform.  For more information on Chef Ann, click here.

Chef Ann Cooper

My response to your “in the classroom” post:

I agree that PTAs & PTOs can help dictate school based decisions.  For a model wellness policy, click here.   Also, get like-minded parents together and go to the school’s board and let them know what’s happening. Often times they don’t realize what’s going on in individual schools.

In the school:

I agree that most actual change happens at the district level.  Here’s a link to add.  [This links to “What You Need to Know About School Lunch” from the Chez Panisse Foundation].  Salad Bars are another way to help change a single school’s food – check out www.saladbarproject.org.  Here’s a blog post you can use.  [This links to “A Salad Bar in Every School” from Chef Ann’s Lunch Box site.]

In the district:

It’s all about the school board – wellness policies and committees – but parents need to assert their authority.  The National School Lunch Act is up for reauthorization – check out this blog post.  [This links to an update on the child nutrition bill.]

And on the education front, another blog post.  [This links to a great piece by Ann herself on the troubling intersection between food manufacturers and the USDA commodity food program.]

Finally, here’s one more link to a video.  [This is a video on Chef Ann’s Lunch Box site called “Changing School Food for Parents and Advocates.”]


Ann Cooper

*  *  *

As the rest of my team of school food reform experts respond, I’ll post their thoughts here.  In the meantime, thank you, Chef Ann for pointing us to these valuable links and resources!

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

“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)

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

“School Food Superheroes”: Change at the Classroom Level

Yesterday 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 call this group of experts my “School Food Superheroes” and after I respond to the reader, they’ll each chime in.

To recap, the reader’s child has just entered public school and she’s dismayed by the cafeteria food, the snacks in the kindergarten classroom (Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos), and the fact that her son is receiving Dum-Dums as rewards from the gym teacher.   (You can refer to the earlier post for the full text of the reader’s email to me).  She asked where to begin to remedy this situation.

I could devote a book to this topic, and I know from experience that once you dip your toe into the waters of school lunch reform, you can easily drown.  So, on the assumption that the reader isn’t looking for a second career as a reformer, my goal here is just to provide some basic advice on getting started.  Also, in the interest of brevity, I’m going to divide my answer into a series of three posts:  change at the classroom level, change at the school level and change at the district level.  Today, Part One.

Change at the Classroom Level

In some ways, making change at the classroom level ought to be the easiest thing to do because there’s the least amount of bureaucracy involved.  On the other hand, it can be harder because you’re dealing one-on-one with people (teachers, principals and other parents) who may not feel as you do about kids and nutrition.

Snacks Provided by Parents

The first question I asked this reader is, who is supplying the Rice Krispie Treats and Cheetos in the kindergarten classroom?  The reader wasn’t sure – parents have been asked by the teacher to supply snacks (pretzels and goldfish, e.g.,) but the teacher might also have supplied these particular snacks.

Let’s assume for the sake of this post that the parents are the culprits here.  Navigating these waters can be tricky, and no one — especially a kindergarten parent who’s new to a school — wants to be seen as a strident Food Nazi, critical of what other parents feed their kids.  (I’ve written about this sticky issue before in Why Kids + Food = Conversational Hot Potato, and even here on The Lunch Tray, we’ve seen sparks fly when parents start judging each other about kids and food).

The first step is to approach the teacher directly, express your concerns, and ask him or her to make another, firmer announcement to parents regarding snack parameters.  I’d add here that this would be a good opportunity to suggest to the teacher other, better snacks for the classroom besides pretzels and goldfish.  I’m assuming the teacher has no place to store perishables like fruit and cheese, but other, nonperishable snacks might include dried fruit, turkey jerky, whole grain crackers, whole grain pretzels, whole grain cereals that could be divvied up in paper cups when served, etc.

Of course, sometimes the teacher is not your ally.  I’ve personally been dismayed by a teacher who handed out jumbo boxes of candy (the kind you get at the movies) to my child for good behavior, and in this case the teacher may actually be the source of the Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats.  In that case the next step is the school principal.  Again, you never know who you’re dealing with and your principal may look at you blankly and ask what’s wrong with Cheetos.  But the hope is that you’ll find a sympathetic ear and he or she can speak to the teacher about snacks.

Both principals and teachers may swayed by anecdotal reports from schools which have seen an improvement in academic performance and a reduction in disciplinary problems when junk food is reduced in the school environment.  When teacher and principal bonuses are tied to standardized testing, that may carry some weight.

The key throughout — and this is critical — is garnering support from other parents.  When I first got involved in school food reform, I learned that many parents are often stewing in silence, deeply concerned about the state of food affairs in the classroom or the cafeteria but feeling too powerless (or just too tired) to do anything about it.  But once they get wind of another parent taking action, they suddenly wake up and say, Yes!  Me, too!

So I’d start asking around to see if there are like-minded parents in the class.  (Or, to the extent the classroom snack issue is more widespread at the school, you may want to raise the issue at PTA meeting and see if support can be found there.)  The bottom line:  whether you’re approaching the teacher or the principal, a united front of several parents is much harder to ignore than the single parent who can be written off as some wacky “health nut.”

School Wellness Policies

Under the prevailing federal child nutrition legislation, every school district must issue a wellness policy.  Without revealing the reader’s particular school district, I was able to find its wellness policy online without much trouble, along with guidelines promulgated under the policy.   (If you’re looking for your own district’s policy, start with the district’s website and if you can’t find it there, call the district or ask your principal).  Under the reader’s district wellness guidelines, recommended classroom snacks are listed and, needless to say, Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats are not among them.  In addition, the policy makes clear that the use of treats as classroom rewards is strongly discouraged (more on that below).

Unfortunately, district wellness policies are not backed up by penalties if they’re violated.  But at least they provide the official mandate of the district and that fact alone should carry at least some weight with the teacher and principal.

Candy as a Classroom Reward

Now let’s turn to the Dum-Dums that are handed out by the school’s gym teacher as a reward.  I really hate this practice of giving tiny bits of sugar out for good behavior or good work (e.g., one of my son’s teachers gave just one or two M&Ms or one Hershey’s Kiss for correct math answers).   The trap here is that the amount of sugar involved is so small that you feel slightly ridiculous for even complaining.  But don’t lose sight of the real issue here.  What does it say that the gym teacher (of all people!) is handing out sugar as a reward?  Why are we setting kids up to think that they should treat themselves with a sweet for every good deed or consequence — and without regard to hunger?

To try to end this practice, I’d advise essentially all the same steps outlined above.  Start by politely asking the gym teacher if other, non-food rewards might be offered instead — and be prepared to offer suggestions (see the resources below for many great ideas).  Depending on your success, you may need back-up from other parents, you may need to seek out the principal, and you may need to start waiving around the wellness policy.

I recognize that none of this is easy.  For a long time, I gritted my teeth about things I didn’t like in my kids school food environment and I’m sure that by speaking up (and by writing this blog), I’ve earned the reputation among some people as a card-carrying member of the Food Police.  But do you know what?  Among a whole other set of parents, all I get is gratitude and support.  So keep that in mind as you take your first baby steps into school food reform.

OK, those are my two cents on effectuating change at the classroom level.  After I post Parts 2 and 3 of this series, I can’t wait to see if my team of school food superheroes has anything to add — or any critiques of my advice.  In the meantime, here are some helpful links:

Resources for Change at the Classroom Level

Healthy School Snacks (Center for  Science in the Public Interest (Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI))

Constructive Classroom Rewards: Promoting Good Habits While Protecting Children’s Health (CSPI)

Alternatives to Using Food as a Reward (Michigan State University Extension)

We didn’t address the huge amounts of junk food often served at school holiday and birthday parties, but that’s a classroom issue, too.  Here are some resources on that topic:

Healthy School Celebrations (CSPI)

Food-Free Celebration Ideas (CSPI, courtesy of Massachusetts Public Health Association)

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

School Food Superheroes to the Rescue!

Last week I received this email, which perfectly expresses the dismay many parents feel when they first venture into the world of public school food:

Recently my son started all day Kindergarten. I was extremely concerned when I looked at the menu for his school lunches and showed my husband. In addition, I’ve noticed that he’s coming home everyday with a dum dum in his back pack and all this week he’s told me that they’ve either had rice krispy treats or cheetos for snacks. We’re not super health food freaks but we do limit the amount of nasty stuff our kids can eat. I send him a healthy lunch 4 out of the 5 days of the week because he doesn’t want to eat the school lunch. My concern is the other children who cannot afford healthy meals and have no choice but to eat the crap the school is serving for lunch and breakfast. I would like to do something but I don’t know what. Where would you suggest I start?

It’s such a basic question, yet a such a huge one.  How can one single parent bring about change? As I usually do when confronted with big school food issues, I asked myself:


What’s that you say?  You’re not familiar with this abbreviation?  Allow me translate:   What would the people I most admire in the school food reform arena — Janet PoppendieckMrs. Q, Chef Ann Cooper, Ed Bruske, and Dr. Susan Rubin — do?

And then, readers, I had a really radical idea.  What if I just . . . you know, asked them?

Well, within less than twelve hours, all five of these very busy people kindly agreed to sign on and assist me in helping this Lunch Tray reader figure out where to start.  So in the coming days, I’ll do my best to answer this reader’s question and then each of these school food experts will also chime in, pointing out ideas I’ve missed, directing her to other resources, or whatever else they want to share.

I like to think of them as a team of School Food Superheroes, and that our collective posts could serve as a great resource for any parent wondering how to make a difference.  So stay tuned for Part One of my answer to the reader, coming later this week . . . .

PS:  All characters depicted above are TM & © Marvel Characters, Inc.  (I used to be Spidey’s lawyer — really! — and old habits die hard.)