Three years of working for Chicago public schools wasn’t enough for me to notice what was happening in the cafeteria; I actually had to eat the food to realize the enormity of the problem. So as “Mrs. Q,” I ate school lunch for a year in 2010, anonymously blogged about it, then revealed my identity with my book, Fed Up with Lunch.
What I learned while “undercover” is that all different types of students have unhealthy eating habits. It is our job as parents to empower them to make better choices, while also giving them the best shot at success by keeping junk out of schools. If moms and dads can all work together to take small steps to make healthy changes at school, I believe we have the chance to change – and even reverse – troubling trends in wellness and obesity. So here are 5 ways we can help:
Start a school wellness committee
While every school district that accepts money for school meals is required to have a local school wellness policy, each school is also encouraged to start its own wellness committee, which can focus specifically on challenges that school faces. Members of this committee can include both concerned parents and teachers who want to help members of the community think about food and activity levels at their school. Such a committee can seek to improve school lunches, research alternatives to candy fundraisers, find out what’s sold in vending machines, and advocate for change in policies surrounding classroom treats.
Rally for salad bars
It sounds ambitious, but school salad bars would be a great way for students to experience delicious, fresh veggies. At school I often see frozen veggies that have been reheated and sit for hours until students come down to lunch. If that were the only way I had experienced broccoli, I would hate it too. Plus, with a salad bar children can choose their own fruits and veggies instead of just being handed what’s available that day.
Ask your PTA or your school’s principal what the school needs to start a salad bar “pilot.” Some school food service providers have been rolling out pilot programs, and interested schools can be placed on the list. Unfortunately the demand outstrips the supply, so some schools may not be chosen simply because there is a lack of equipment. However, parents can also collaborate with wellness committees and/or the PTA to recruit financial backing from a local, health-focused, charitable foundation (typically affiliated with a hospital or health care center) to purchase a salad bar.
Request ingredient transparency
Have you ever eaten a slice of pizza with sixty-two ingredients? You may not have, but it’s possible that your children do – on a weekly basis. Many school pizzas have ingredient lists that are paragraphs long, but I’m betting you had no idea. That’s because school food companies restrict access to ingredient lists. Some districts provide this information on their websites, but others don’t make this information readily available to consumers (parents and kids) because it is proprietary. But with the increasing prevalence of food allergies, ingredient transparency could be a matter of life and death for many kids. Chat with the principal and the cafeteria staff at the school or the nutrition director of your school district to find out more about the food the students are being served and how ingredient lists can be posted online or at school.
Fight to increase eating time
My entire wish list of reforms can come true at my school’s cafeteria, but if the kids don’t have enough time to eat, what’s the point? In the large urban schools in which I have worked, it’s a huge struggle to get more than 1,000 students through lunch lines over five lunch periods of twenty minutes each. With this in mind, my colleagues and I have estimated that students end up with somewhere between 9-13 minutes of actual eating time. In schools without recess, this gives students practically no chance to take a break from academics and socialize.
Unfortunately, setting the hours of the day may be out of a local school’s control. But when contracts get renegotiated, which can happen on a yearly basis for larger school districts like Chicago, attend the district meetings in advance or send a letter to the district (by email or snail mail), making it known that adding 5-10 minutes for lunch is a worthy investment. At my school, food waste would plummet if the kids had more time to eat – and I’d bet kids wouldn’t be as hungry in the afternoon.
Encourage nutrition education
Many schools have removed home economics classes in an effort to cut costs. The result? Kids don’t have a clue how to prepare a meal. And nowadays, many busy parents don’t have the kitchen skills or the time to teach their children how to cook anything that didn’t come from a box. While it will be challenging for every school to resurrect a formal home economics curriculum, there are creative ways to get students and teachers thinking about healthy food within the existing curriculum. Teachers could bring in a new vegetable every week and have the students write down their observations of what they see and how they can imagine cooking it (thereby fulfilling state standards for science while also touching upon writing). Kids could also make a classroom treat, like fresh salsa, measure out the ingredients, and calculate how to double the recipe (fulfilling the state standards for math). Also, many principals struggle to bring in a diverse set of assemblies for students and provide the teachers with interesting speakers on in-service days, where they often receive information about new school initiatives. Approach your school’s principal about using these events to feature local chefs, nutritionists, and non-profit organizations that focus on children and food.