It’s no secret that most school lunches are not healthful. Too much fat, salt, sugar, carbs and too many chemical additives. Despite all the media hype on the subject, the vast majority of educational facilities have done little to change their ways.
If you are willing to get involved, you can help turn the tide. It takes a major adjustment in the way communities view school food. Not only is the food detrimental to kids’ bodies, but there’s a message students e when cafeterias serve low-quality meals.
The Feingold Association outlines these 12 steps you can take to make a difference:
1. Recognize what’s at stake
The factory foods served in most schools are not only unhealthy; they lead to behavior and learning problems. Then schools and communities spend a fortune trying to fix the issues that result. Behavior and learning problems in childhood mean potential failure as adults. The US is far behind other countries in math and science, and learning problems — now being experienced by one child in ten — will increase that gap. Children need more than full bellies in order to learn; they also need fuel for their brains.
2. Eat it!
Don’t believe what you read on the school lunch menu. And don’t make a judgment about the cafeteria food without checking it out. Go to the school and actually eat that food (if you can stomach it). At least take a close look, and smell it. You might find that it’s awful, but you might find that it’s really quite good. In that case, most of the suggestions below will not apply.
3. Size up the challenge
If the food is bad, the next step is to test the waters. Contact the food service director and see if there is any genuine interest in making improvements. If you get a brush-off, you can be sure that offering your cooperation won’t get you anywhere. You will need to gather a small group of like-minded people and use confrontation. Create a petition/web site or other resource to make use of the large number of parents who agree with you. Don’t ask for improvement – demand it!
4. Beware the hype
Phrases like “Fresh Cooked Food” and “We Walk the Walk” and other clever PR sleights of hand are often used to discourage parents from learning about the greasy, chemically-laden things that are really on that cafeteria tray.
5. Take a look at the successful programs
There are multiple web sites in addition to this one, that can help. Learn what other schools have done to reform their cafeterias. See what other countries are feeding their students and be open to innovative solutions (like the British school children who eat lunch at the nearby pub – just good food, no alcohol). Consider breakfast eaten in the classroom, fresh fruit and vegetable snacks available through the day, water available all day, and open your mind to the possibilities of free, healthy food for all children. (The arguments for it are compelling.) Here are some:
6. Avoid the extremes
Be alert that some of the school lunch initiatives are actually prompted by a different agenda, such as a plant-based diet advocated by animal rights activists. A meat-free diet is likely to rely heavily on soy products, which are poorly tolerated by many. It’s much more productive to look at the real food children ate in the 1950s and use that as a guide, rather than experiment on our kids with radical changes in their diet.
7. There are many levels of improvement; find what will fit your school
A change could be as modest as getting rid of the petroleum-based dyes or as ambitious as planting organic schoolyard gardens and teaching kids how to cook some basic food. Don’t look at this as an all-or-nothing deal. Start with one or two things that can be achieved. Next year you can seek additional improvements. If your list of demands gets too long, you are likely to be stuck with more years of greasy pizza and ubiquitous fries. This is what has happened with most reform efforts.
8. Beware the bureaucratic solutions
Sprinkling some whole grains on a bowl of junk cereal won’t make it healthy, and adding vitamin C to junk beverages doesn’t transform them. This is the mindset of food giants and the US Department of Agriculture. But school food should be based on food – not on individual nutrients.
9. How schools waste money
Buying single-serving, plastic wrapped portions is wasteful and loads up our landfills. What’s more, while it might look okay on paper, bad food costs too much since so much of the money goes for processing, packaging and profits. Schools need bean cookers, not bean counters.
10. Look at the big picture
Is it too expensive to feed children healthy food? Want to save money? Then why not reduce the school year to just 90 days, or make school a half-day, or cut out math class, or stop educating kids after the 8th grade? If the money spent in operating public schools is considered an investment, not an expense, then schools should stop sabotaging that investment by undermining a child’s ability to learn.
11. Question the common myths about school food
Here are a few of the common objections. “The food needs to be full of additives because it is prepared off site.” “Healthy food costs more.” “The kids will never eat it.” “We can’t provide healthy meals because we rely on government commodity foods.” “It’s too expensive to hire trained personnel to do the cooking.” “Our food has the blessing of the Department of Agriculture.” This last statement is actually true — the USDA considers French fries to be a vegetable.
12. Shame on them!
Enlist other parents, children and teens in your campaign to force change on a reluctant system. Ask journalists to actually eat the food before they write about it. See if area restaurant critics will sample the school meals and write about them. Take photos of the meals and post them online (enlist the help of your teens). Send emails to area PTA leaders. Collect names on a petition and present them to the school board with your list of demands, but be sure your demands are realistic.
And the Ultimate Solution: See if you can find a way to require all of the school administrators and school board members to actually eat the things they are feeding the children. If these people were required to eat in the school cafeteria once a month, you’d see some big changes in a hurry!
A final note: Most initiatives fail because the leaders make the same mistakes: They bring too many people into the planning efforts, incorporate too many demands, believe they have to justify their efforts with science, and allow the school administrators to call the shots. Months are spent in planning and discussing, trying to “make nice” with the food service people. Eventually, the coalition falls apart because there were “too many cooks.”
The well-intentioned parent may believe that if the dietitian and others only understood how important good food is for the children, they would surely change it. But it could be that the director is buried under a mountain of regulations and feels unable to make changes. Or, it could be that she finds it easier to serve factory food. Or perhaps there are hidden kickbacks that make it profitable to continue to use the unhealthy food. If this is so, her goal is not to change but to do as little as possible, and drag the whole process out because she knows that eventually, you’ll give up, go home and leave her alone.
See a related slide show from the Feingold Associaiton on www.school-lunch.org.