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.

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  1. says

    THANK YOU so much for posting this article. Mrs. Nancy Huehnergarth is an inspiration with sound, quality advice for parents and school food advocates. I especially like the advice to get pediatricians speaking at school forums. The biggest challenge I find is giving the parents the support they need to have a loud enough voice when going up against the board and food services. For Houston parents who want to reach out to one another across the district, visit You can also find a petition asking HISD Food Services to eliminate harmful ingredients in our kids school meals-over 140 signatures so far!

  2. says

    Getting parent involvement is always important when trying to make a change. As an individual working in a Child Nutrition Program that has been making changes for years and struggling to get the word out to parents through our social media and own website I do take offense that food service is most often lumped in with the vending machine issue, and foods offered in classrooms issue etc. the obesity issue. There are many Child Nutrition Programs making a big difference in the health of their students. Why is it that the bad is what is always in the forefront on blogs etc? I would encourage any who read this to follow School Meals That Rock on facebook or google Dayle Hayes MS RD! She is trying to get the word out about the positive things happening in Lunchrooms across the nation! It is not just what is consumed by the students but their activity levels also. Our CNP addresses both!

    • Nancy Huehnergarth says

      I don’t think the “bad” is always in the forefront of blogs. I’ve seen countless posts about school food improvements in individual schools across the U.S. As I mentioned above, positive things are happening in school lunchrooms this fall now that the new National School Lunch Program nutrition standards have been implemented. The reimbursable meals will be far more nutritious. However, the reality is that too many schools still offer a wealth of unhealthy “competitive foods” that will tempt children away from healthier NSLP meals.

      It’s taken well over a decade to upgrade the nutritional content of NSLP meals in this era of rampant childhood obesity thanks to pushback from the food industry and other stakeholders. Parents need to demand healthy changes in competitive foods at their children’s schools NOW. They also should demand that sensible policies are implemented with regard to school parties, food as rewards and food fundraising. Can we really afford to wait another decade for these changes to be made?

      I agree with you that physical activity is very important for children’s general health and well-being. However, a growing body of evidence finds virtually no connection between physical activity levels and healthy BMI. So we really need to focus in on serving our children healthy foods at school (in the cafeteria, school store, classroom and vending machines) and at home, if we want to ensure that our children live long, healthy lives.

      • says

        I just want to add that I thank you for including the “and at home”. It takes all of us together to make a difference. I am a mother too, and am proud of what the district I work has been doing for the past several years in their Child Nutrition Program. I am saddened that for some it takes a change in federal laws and guidelines to make the changes to healthier school meals. I also realize what I cook, serve, and have available for snacks at home makes as much or more of an impact on my own daughters health and well being.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Colleen: It sounds like maybe you’re new to TLT? Just in case that’s true, I can assure you this is not a forum where school food professionals are bashed and blamed. To the contrary, I think most school food professionals know how sympathetic I am to the myriad hurdles they face trying to feed kids well and that’s one reason why they often come to my blog to comment, guest post and exchange views with each other. (See, as just one recent example, yesterday’s post and the comments there.) I also agree that food service departments shouldn’t always be lumped in with vending machines and competitive junk food, but sometimes that connection is warranted. In my district, Houston ISD, it’s the Food Services department that is selling the bright blue slushies and the fried chip nachos and the Frito Pie on the a la carte line, and they work with the district to monitor vending machines to ensure that no competitive food is sold there that could undercut their profits in the cafeteria snack lines. At any rate, I’m so glad to hear that your CNP is doing well – I’d love to hear more. Thanks so much for coming by and please continue to comment here – I appreciate your perspective. (PS: And I do know about Dayle and School Meals That Rock — I posted about her and her Facebook page way back in 2010, not long after starting TLT!)

  3. heartsmart says

    Thanks for posting this. I have been an organizer of one of these parent groups and at one time had over 40 people. Then they started dropping one by one and actually had very harsh words to say as they did it…to ME. IT got really bad, as the food service rebelled majorly and started to BLAME this intiative for things that had nothing to do with us. We volunteered our time to help with new taste tests, and then found out that things like flavored milk were put on the tables that we stood behind. Without our knowledge, I might add. When I confronted the food service director about this, she then said that she could put whatever she wanted on those tables…and I said “not with us standing behind them, it made us look hypocritical.” This is what began the problem that still exists today which is Food service personnel have made it look like the parents are not willing to help, and that our expectations are unrealistic (they are not…we just wanted to replace highly processed foods with better options, even less processed would have been OK). I have done ever single thing on your list, and the group is now about 5 active people, everyone else could not stand the conflict any longer, and just gave up. So, I ask you….what do you do when you have a food service who gets to call all the shots, they tell the administration they are doing something for the better, when clearly they are not. They are doing everything to make this fail and I do not understand WHY?????? Is it rebates that are being lost if we do not get frito lay products?

    I do want to end by saying I applaud any Food Service personnel, and I have met many, who are rising to the occasion and doing a more difficult job to address this national epidemic ,,,I just wish these people worked in my school district :)

    • Nancy Huehnergarth says

      Does your school district work with an outside food service company? If so, my personal experience (mind you this was from 2002-2004) has been that they will stonewall and sabotage if they feel their profits are threatened. As you probably know, junk food and sugary milk sell well. Processed food is cheaper than real food and real food creates more work for food service personnel (many of whom have limited cooking skills).

      And you are absolutely right about the rebates. Our food service company would only obtain foods from certain vendors and refused to offer foods from others. This was because of the volume rebate system. Too bad your administration just goes along with anything they say. But that’s not unusual. Many school administrators have no interest in school food. Our superintendent, with a PhD, said as much, to my face! And he had young children.

      If your school district doesn’t work with a food service company, then it sounds like your food service personnel simply feel threatened and don’t like losing control. The changes you are suggesting will probably create a lot of new work for them. And these same changes will possibly force them to rethink and rework their budget.

      Have you gone to your local newspaper or TV station and asked them to do a story on what has been happening in your school district? Childhood obesity and school food are a hot topic now, thanks to Michelle Obama. When we went to the newspaper and an article was written, suddenly our school district decided to make some of the changes we had asked for.

      Have you reached out to local pediatricians, dentists and other physicians to support your work? Sometimes, getting these experts on your team can be very helpful.

      • Maggie says

        “…your food service personnel simply feel threatened and don’t like losing control. The changes you are suggesting will probably create a lot of new work for them. And these same changes will possibly force them to rethink and rework their budget.”

        Wouldn’t one of the first steps be to meet and coordinate with the food service department to see if the ideas are even possible with the resources available?

        You are sadly correct to note that administration often doesn’t seem to have a lot of interest in food service. It can leave those “on the ground” (Bettina’s phrase, which I like!) feeling between a rock and hard place, potentially wanting nothing more than to fulfill demands but unsupported by those who would make it possible for them to do so.

        • Nancy Huehnergarth says

          Yes, you are absolutely right. Food service should be included in discussions about change from the get-go. However, from my personal experience and from what I’ve heard from many parents in different school districts, it’s not uncommon for food service to balk at changes of any kind. This could be because changes you recommend:
          – Will decrease profitability and/or require significant re-budgeting
          – Will require more cooking skills than the staff possesses
          – Will require kitchen equipment that the school doesn’t possess
          – Will increase the workload of the food service staff or require more staff

          If your food service says they can’t make the changes you are requesting because they don’t have the resources, it’s important to sit down with them and members of the school administration and go over their budgets and resources. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. Too often, when people have been doing any job one way for a long time, they are unable to see other ways to do things. If concerned parents, school administrators and food service leaders can work closely together, you will all understand the limitations of your food service operation, as well as what they are able to do.

          Just one caveat. Our district employed an outside food service company which was unwilling to share their budgetary information with us. I doubt many outside companies would be open with their budgeting. Through a respected and trustworthy contact, we were told that our district’s food service was highly profitable for the food service company — it had the highest profit among schools they were serving in the region. So we knew why they were balking at any change.

          • heartsmart says

            we have an entire committee that was developed from my initiative that has administrative members, board members, community members and food service…all were supposed to work together on this…but that never happened, as the food service would just go back and do what they wanted, it was more to appease the superintendent and the board that they attended and acted as though they were trying to work with us. Which is my next question….the board and the administration were very much in support of this initiative, and wanted it to continue, why would food service feel threatened.? Parents stepped up to help to look for grants, to, volunteer, , to look for free training which was available in the “chefs go to schools” program. We have had very well known food advocates come to this district. The food service director did not take advantage of any of these things, and continued to show how it could not be done. Also, food service is not supposed to be profitable, as a matter of fact, they can get in trouble if they are too profitable. They need to break even and if they do make any profit it needs to go right back into wellness…at least that is what we were told by the state and the federal government…yes, we contacted them after we were told by the food service director that the wellness policy was just for the competitive foods and not for the other regular meals , which of course is not true.

            Also, I believe that when food service companies or district hired food service programs are making any kind of money at the expense of kids health, it should be seen as unethical. almost like a hospital that would be using something that could harm a patients because the drug company gives them perks….in that light, it is called kickbacks and is illegal….nobody wants to use that term in a school, but the rebates that make the companies so much money are the same thing. Schools are a place where kids should be coming first, not big business. A school is supposed to be teaching kids to be whole kids which means if you offer health as subject then teach it and the school behaviors regarding any food served during school should support what is being taught.

            • Nancy Huehnergarth says

              If your food service personnel don’t respect or listen to school administrators, the superintendent or board members, and just do whatever they want, I think your district has a bigger problem than lousy school food. Who is the one school administrator in charge of supervising them?

              • heartsmart says

                business manager is her direct supervisor, and she is not much of a help either. I think to her she would rather ignore the food service, as she has much bigger things to worry about like major budget issues…to her this has been one more responsibility to worry about. Yes we have a huge problem of no consequences for problematic behaviors because our superintendent does not like conflict, and so the Food serive director knows this and just does as she pleases for she feels no threat of a consequence It is very frustrating and extremely disturbing.

      • heartsmart says

        Thanks for the response Nancy. To answer your questions, we do not have an outsourced company which is why I am so surprised by this. We have district employees, and I have to say that it is not really the food service personnel who work in the schools, it is the director and some of the managers in the elementary level that seem to have the most resistance. That is what is so confusing. The other food service personnel really like what we are trying to do and have never tried to resist unless otherwise directed by the food service director. It seems when they do anything that shows they are supporting this initiative, they have at times lost their jobs (really sad), so they have no choice but to follow the instructions that they are given, even if they feel differently.

        I have actually started a blog in a local online popular paper. It was in response to some really harsh remarks that were being made in regards to this initiative and about the group of us that are involved. It got to the point that there were so many inaccuracies out there and the names we were called like “nutritionnazis” were really mean. So, in response, I decided to start a blog to try and correct all of the inaccuracies one by one that are leading people to the wrong conclusions about this initiative. It is really hard for me to understand why the resistance, for as you said, there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and if you are working in a school, you would think those would be the people who especially care about kids and would want to do their part to help. The administration has continually ignored what is going on, even the board members, who at one time were so supportive, all of a sudden changed their tune. What I really am surprised at is that NOBODY pays any attention to what is going on in food service, especially the financials until there is a huge loss, and then it becomes due to the new initiative without any proof whatsoever to base that on. we have asked to see financial information, and finally it will be given at an upcoming board meeting, but probably will not be what we really need to know, and, again…nobody cares to know the speficics, they just care about the bottom line. Shouldn’t there be a checks and balances system so that someone else is looking at the line items of the finacials of the food service besides the food service director? This is where I am at now, board meeting is coming up and I have all my questions ready to go…problem is that I will probably not get any of the answers, and processed foods will come back in full force because they feel that is the solution to the financial loss since the food service director has painted the picture that way. So aggravating…

  4. Cooper says

    ” If you don’t like how your children’s schools or teachers are feeding your kids, YOU must organize and demand change. ”


    Yes, an important issue here … among many other important issues affecting the well-being, development and education of our children.

    Food/nutrition is merely another of the endless controversies over how public schooling should be conducted. The fundamental problem… is that of “Values”. Whose values should prevail in a basically One-Size-Fits-All government school system ?

    Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, education & schooling cannot be conducted in some objective, sterile process. Someone must always decide what will be taught to the children, how it will be taught, and in what physical & social environment it will be taught. These things are ALWAYS subjective, human decisions. Who Decides ?

    When schools are run by government bureaucrats… the details of 9th-Grade biology classes, the propriety of patriotic rituals & religious observances, speech/dress/behavior codes… and every other possible issue — from how to teach math & reading… to vending machine contents & cafeteria menus —becomes a POLITICAL issue.

    Hence Nancy’s sincere advice above to organize {politically} and “demand” change from lethargic school bureaucrats. But why should education be political at all ?

    Whose ‘values’ should be used for a child’s education, in the first place ? The logical answer is “parents”, but they were cut out of our compulsory government school system long ago (except to pay the bills/taxes, and hand their children over to government bureaucrats each weekday).

    In American public schools, ‘values’ are determined by legions of education administrators, bureaucrats, and NEA lemmings. Real control has steadily centralized from the local level — to the state and Federal level. Parents can tinker at the political margins, but have long been cut out of the ‘system’ …. and it’s futile to now imagine any genuine power over that system.

    The solution, of course, is to privatize all schools, as Nobel prize-winner Milton Friedman long advocated. America was built and prospered on a private school system, directly reflecting individual parental values; modern Americans, indoctrinated by many years in government schools, recoil at such history/ideas … mistakenly seeing it as beyond belief or reason.


  5. Oliver says

    Nancy – Everything you said was spot on. What stood out for me was the making demands part – that has been my achiles heel; I am always asking for too much to be changed too quickly, and this turns off not just administrators but normal folk, parents etc.
    While we may have influence and can impact our children and friends and family etc – extending what we know as regards to good eating etc. to people beyond that familiarity zone is sketchy to say the least.

    • Nancy Huehnergarth says

      Oliver, yes it’s definitely tricky and difficult trying to make changes in school food . You’re always going to have people who think you’re one brick short of a load or the head of the ‘Nanny State.’ But don’t give up. It’s too important for any of us to give up. Definitely try to form a coalition. Come up with a list of short-term, do-able demands. Try to find a district administrator/board member who will act as your champion. And celebrate even small changes you accomplish. School food change tends to be incremental so don’t be discouraged if things move very slowly. You are making a difference!

      • Oliver says

        Well I won’t be giving up – you don’t get to be called a pesky pain in the butt without being persistent. Actually, I have a new angle at getting people’s attention – Celebrity moms.
        Here in New york there are plenty of Celebrities (or wives of)who have their kids in the NY school systems (both public and private). I have reached out to one who is affiliated with UNICEF (an active member). She and I will meet this month to map out a plan to engage the scientists at UNICEF to expose the many dynamics involved with nutrient damage – similar to what I spoke about on the other thread regarding pink slime.
        This celebrity soccer mom also has kids in the same school with other celebrity moms (one a prominent ABC TV morning personality here in New York). It is my hope that they along with the millions of moms who bust their butts day in and day out and who struggle to get the food thing right, we can collectively contribute to this effort of getting the everyday persons voice heard. I will keep you and others posted Nancy.

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