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.