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.
- Gather support. Ask the school nurse, the PE teacher, a local physician, or a parent who’s a professional dietitian to help you research, brainstorm, and make a plan for change. Nutritional expertise is especially important to help you decide exactly what changes you need. And it will give you more credibility when you begin to press for what you want. Bring up your concerns at a PTA meeting; members may be willing to be part of your task force.
- Boost your knowledge. Take a look at the USDA school meals page at fns.usda.gov to learn more about how the school lunch program works and the legal standards that lunches have to meet. While you’re at it, get examples of healthy menus from districts around the country on the USDA site, teamnutrition.usda.gov. Arrange to visit your kid’s school to see for yourself what’s being served.
- Meet with the school. With some members of your committee, ask the superintendent to back your efforts. You may be able to get school board members to back you as well.
- Invite student participation. The kids are the ones who buy the food, so changes based on their input give you a better chance of success. Arrange several focus groups—gatherings of 20 to 25 students to answer simple questions about what they like and don’t like about the current lunches. Ideally, get help from a committee member who also works at the school -- the nurse, PE teacher, marketing teacher.
- Draft a proposal. Write up the changes you’re requesting, being very specific. Emphasize what you want to happen rather than the things you don’t like -- people respond better to positives than negatives. Your outline should include the results of your research with students, and might list foods to be deleted or altered, and those you’d like offered. Don’t forget to address what’s in the vending machines; lots of kids skip lunch and snack on chips and soda instead, if they’re available. And not all changes have to do with food. Many kids say they grab junk because the 20 minutes usually allocated for lunch isn’t enough time to get in line to buy and eat anything more complicated. It’s a long shot, but maybe your school can find ways to offer kids a more relaxed meal.
- Be realistic. You may not get everything you want the minute you ask for it, but don’t give up. The school’s ability to achieve your goals will be complicated by things like its budget and the type and quality of government-subsidized foods available to them.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. Schools can be intensely political places. Don’t get drawn into unnecessary personality conflicts and power struggles. Remind yourself, and others when necessary, that your goal is always to help the kids.