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The School Lunch Revolution

All over the country parents are banding together to make sure kids eat healthy food at school. Here's why -- and how you can join them.

By Jennifer Nelson

All About School Lunches

In living rooms and lunch rooms, in meeting halls and school kitchens, there’s a quiet revolution going on. “Parents are discovering what their kids are eating for lunch and they’re horrified,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press). What’s more, they’re taking action. “I see it as a major national movement,” says Nestle.

The action is inspired not only by the age-old desire to get kids to eat healthfully but also by the childhood obesity epidemic that’s alarming parents and experts alike. Our hooked-on-tech kids are exercising less and eating more of the wrong things -- a potentially dangerous mix. Amazingly, some of that bad eating is happening in a place you’d think would know better: school. Kids are moving through the lunch line and ending up with chips, cookies, and soda on their trays where there should be fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and milk or 100 percent fruit juice.

As awareness of child nutrition problems grows, there has been some progress. Just last spring three top soft-drink companies voluntarily agreed to remove sugary drinks from school cafeterias and vending machines. Congress recently passed the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which calls on the USDA to update its decades-old standard for drinks and snack foods sold with school lunches.

Congress also passed a school wellness policy that must be implemented this fall. The bill says that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must set goals for nutrition education, physical activity, food served, and other ways of promoting student wellness. Unfortunately, the bill has no teeth. “It leaves it up to the school districts to decide how they’re going to do it and gives no additional funding and no enforcement,” says Nestle.

Clearly, more change is necessary -- especially given that rewards are relatively quick and measurable. According to one recent survey, when parents get involved with what’s served in cafeterias, kids are about 25 percent less likely to be overweight. “Our school system is thinking about weighing every child each year and giving the schools an ‘obesity index,’” says Emily Paulsen, the Bethesda, Maryland, mother of Eli, 10, and Maya, 6. “I think the money would be much better spent on improving the quality of school lunches.”

Responding to the growing government pressure, some districts have already begun redesigning their menus to include healthier foods. And they’ve also banned soda and reduced prices of healthy items to encourage kids to buy them. But just as often it is concerned parents like you who have initiated change -- and the climate for improving school lunches has never been better.

Getting Involved

How are things going in the cafeterias in your district? Are you ready to grab some interested friends and take action to improve what your kids are eating at school? Get started with these strategies.

Healthy Lunch Ideas What's in a Good Lunch?

What to Watch Out For

Be a Food Coach

Teach your kids to make better choices using these suggestions.

What Kids Love

“Nothing goes on our menus that hasn’t been tested by our kids during our tasting parties,” says Penny McConnell. Below, two sample menus (all bread except breadsticks is whole grain).

Day One

Day Two

Moms Who Made a Difference Kendra Dahlen, Mom to Kyle Murphy, 16

School district: Olympia, Washington

The problem: Too much greasy food -- while a nearby school put in organic salad bars.

How she got started: Kendra and an acquaintance on the school board formed a task force with other parents, teachers, and the food service director. And, Kendra says, “We gave high priority to involving the kids.” More than 2,500 students met in focus groups and shared their ideas.

What she wanted: Yogurt bar with toppings, pasta and baked potato bars, more fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Yogurt, string cheese, and milk in vending machines.

What she got: After six months, 100 percent fruit juices, granola-topped yogurt parfaits, a variety of freshly made salads and sandwiches (some on whole wheat bread), and pasta bars with veggie toppings.

Barbara Kimmel, Mom to Seth, 9, and Danny, 12

School district: Chester, New Jersey

The problem: Unhealthy and unappealing food. “The vegetables looked like they’d been cut five days ago,” says Barbara. Snack choices were potato chips and processed fruit strips.

How she got started: Barbara and another mom formed a group of parents, administrators, and teachers. With the school nurse and the librarian, the group decided on goals and then met with the school’s food services contractor.

What she wanted: Less ground beef, light rather than full-fat cheese, baked chicken to replace fried, more fruits and vegetables, yogurt as a snack.

What she got: In three months, more chicken and pasta dishes, more fruits and vegetables. Bottled water and 100 percent fruit juice. Low-fat salad dressing.

LaDonna Redmond, Mom to Wade, 8, and Taylor, 6

School district: Chicago, Illinois

The problem: Wade is allergic to dairy, eggs, shellfish, and peanuts. LaDonna had been packing his lunches, but he was eager to buy like the other kids. She discovered that his school had very limited offerings -- of unhealthy food. “My son isn’t the only one who can’t eat grilled cheese sandwiches or cheeseburgers,” she says.

How she got started: LaDonna asked the principal how they could team up to improve school lunches. She asked parents and local nutritionists to get involved and arranged for dietary interns from Chicago’s Loyola University to teach kids about healthier eating.

What she wanted: A salad bar with more fruits and vegetables, and nutrition education for the kids.

What she got: By the end of the school year, salad bars. Teachers doing lessons on nutrition and portion control. Vending machines overhauled to replace high-fat snacks with baked chips and low-sugar options. Sodas banned.