School Foods: What You Can Do!

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So you’ve taken a look at the breakfast, snacks or lunch that your kids are given to eat at school, and think there is room for improvement?  Have you noticed that your kids aren’t eating the lunch that you pack for them, and they say it’s because they aren’t hungry because they’ve had a large “treat” that morning?  Or maybe that they aren’t eating their dinner every evening, and you suspect it’s because of a snack served during late afternoon after-care hours?

Maybe you’re just glad that your kids are eating something.  Maybe you’re relieved that you don’t have to think about their food choices during the day.  I definitely know that feeling!

But for some parents, this is an issue to take on with the school or school district, perhaps because of specific medical concerns like food allergies, or general health issues like weight and nutritional awareness.  Or maybe, like me, you just want to teach your kids to eat well by exposing them to a wide variety of flavors and foods and tastes.  And you’ve realized that once their meal choice is out of your direct control, this is harder than ever to do.

Schools and daycare centers and other organizations that service children are in a tough spot when it comes to menu selection.  For one thing, the dollars available to spend are usually extremely limited.  They may not have kitchens or even ovens in which to prepare “real” dishes, so they are forced into serving “heat and eat” items that only require a warm-up.  Snack foods often have to be shelf-stable, inexpensive and served in pre-packaging; you can see how that severely limits possible offerings.  And, unfortunately, most of these places do not view food issues as a major priority: They are there to educate your kids or to take care of them during the day while you’re working.  Whether or not they are taught about food choices is not really high on the list of priorities.

Still, there are things that you as a concerned parent can do to make changes.  Here are some tips from parents who have gotten involved in the school food service issue:

n  Observe and note what your kids are being fed every day, at breakfast, snack time and lunchtime, for at least two weeks.  Look it up on-line, if the information is published there, or ask your child or the teacher.  Get as specific as possible, noting that Mondays are Goldfish, Tuesdays are Saltines, Wednesdays are Ritz crackers, etc.  There is probably also a pattern in the lunch choice, as in pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, repeat.

n  If your kids are old enough to remember and tell you, ask them specifically what of these offerings they eat each day.  If your child is too young, e-mail the teacher and ask for details.  Don’t be afraid to do this!  You need to know how much s/he is consuming every day at school, so you can get some insight as to how it is affecting food consumption during home meals.

n  Start talking about this to other parents at the school.  I predict that you will be pleasantly surprised at how many agree with you…. But probably, like you, have never thought about what can be done to improve school food choices.  Knowing that there are others who think as you do is most affirming!

n  Start with your Parent-Teacher Association, Home-School Association, or whatever your local parents club is called.  Tell them that this is an issue that is important to a number of parents, and ask if it can be made a topic for discussion at a meeting, or through a community newsletter or list serve.  Ask if the group can conduct a survey of teachers; their input and insight will be invaluable, as they see these issues first-hand every day, and deal with the repercussions of “bad” eating.

n  If your kids are in public schools that deal with food issues through a district policy, do some research to see if any other schools are already working on the issue.  Most major cities have parent groups that are already working with foodservice operators to implement nutritional improvements.  (In Washington, DC, where I live, it’s Parents for Better DC School Food.)

n  Set up a meeting with your school’s principal or head administrator to discuss foods issues.  You may be pleasantly surprised, again, by how much interest and support you get.  At minimum, you’ll see how much of a challenge you have on your hands. 

n  Ask the principal or food service administrator to sign-up for the White House’s Chefs Move to Schools program http://www.letsmove.gov/chefs-step-1.php, so that a local chef can be assigned to work with your school.  And ask about the possibility of allocating some land on the school property to start a student-run garden.

n  If taking on the whole school or school district is more than you want to do, start with your child’s class.  Talk to the teacher and home room parent about snacking policies.  Little steps can mean a lot – see if you can get parents to volunteer to bring in fruits or vegetables one day a week, in place of packaged crackers.  Ask the teacher to substitute water for fake juices or “lemonade.”  Try packing lunch at home for a week and see if that is a manageable option.

n  If your kids are old enough to understand, talk to them about what you are doing!  Tell them that you’re concerned about the foods that they eat every day and that you want them to be served the best foods possible.  Turn it into a positive in their eyes, and look for their support.  Instead of being the “mom who took away the Rice Krispie treats,” be the mom who cares about good eating!

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