So You Say You Want a School Food Revolution?!

It’s that time again! The kids go back to school, which means back to navigating school food. For diet-aware parents, the food can be the most challenging part of the September to June sprint. We look at the school breakfast and lunch menus and dream of a total makeover. If we could only eliminate toaster pastries or cut the number of times pizza is served each week, maybe that would make it better. But, even when plant-powered kids pack a lunch, their parents can only hope for the best. Either way, it seems no one really likes school food. So then, the question becomes, how do we change it?

We can start by looking at the big picture, the school food culture. What is school food culture: The school’s standards, norms, and social behavior, as well as the customs, beliefs, and habits of school staff and students regarding food available in the school setting. In addition, school food culture includes the unspoken yet demonstrated values that indicate which foods are more important and desirable and, conversely, which foods are useless and unwanted.

In practical terms, school food culture is not only what happens at mealtimes. School food culture permeates, teaches, and reinforces foodways in the school environment. That includes everywhere food is served or supplied on the school campus. That includes class parties, food given as rewards, concession stands at sporting events, vending machines, bake sales, and food for fundraisers. Some people would even say that the snacks the school staff may have visible on their desks for their own consumption are also a part of the school food culture. No matter how we look at it, all this sends a message to the students about what kind of food we value and when and how we eat it.

The School Lunch Program schedule and menus, those carefully planned meal breaks when all the students eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks, exert a tremendous influence on the school’s food culture. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) manages and certifies School Lunch Programs. It determines which foods are allowed and portion sizes for meals and snack times in more than 94,000 schools and residential child care institutions nationwide. The USDA is also in charge of establishing nutrition guidelines for the American public and our farmers have a hungry market in which to sell their goods. Unfortunately, the USDA’s two purposes are in direct conflict when it comes to the agency’s role as watchdog for the American diet. This is particularly true for children in schools. Therein lies the rub.

Because, the USDA strictly regulates the meals served in the majority of US schools, US school food programs largely resemble the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is what the majority of Americans consume. School food cultures, then mimic the SAD, usually supplying unhealthy foods for meals, at parties and team sporting events where they sell candy, buttered popcorn, pizza, sodas, and the like. In addition, many schools have vending machines and staff who bring in processed treats for their co-workers and the students. Add to that the national food recognition days for unhealthful foods like ice cream, donuts, cheese pizza, Pi (pie), Rice Krispies Treats, American pot pie, and chocolate milk. And all this happens interlaced with sugar-heavy holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, the winter holidays, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and birthday parties. Sadly, this is the nutritionally depleted environment where most children spend about 1000 hours per year. This environment not only teaches our children what foods are highly prized. Furthermore, it implies status and, above all, what food is cool to eat.

Considering the complexity and importance of school food culture, it is probably unrealistic to think that your child’s school will remove all low-quality foods from the educational environment all at once. However, parents, caregivers, and children can make a difference in the school food culture, even if that change may be gradual. Knowing that eating more whole plant foods helps kids resist illness, maintain a healthy weight, focus, think, and learn is an excellent place to start.

Here are a few steps you can take if you want healthy food to be the most significant part of your kid’s school food culture. First, assume that most educators want the students to be healthy and ready to learn. Next, remember that swaying any culture works best if it comes from within. The same is true of transforming the school food culture. Because of this, we recommend building relationships first. Then, respectfully start the conversation.

  1. Go to your child’s school and speak with the classroom teacher. Be friendly. Ask her how the school year has been going. Start a positive relationship. Ask about implementing a healthy snack plan for the kids. Maybe other parents would be willing to supply fruit or veggies for the kids once a month. Offer to help arrange it. Suggest non-food rewardsinstead of candies, and fruits and veggies for classroom celebrations.
  2. Join the PTSA. Bring information about the importance of nutritious food for children’s physical and mental health, growth, development, and academic ability. Seek out like-minded parents who feel the same way you do. Start a committee focused on transforming the school food culture for the better.
  3. Speak with the school principal. Remember that most educators want children to be healthy and ready to learn. Assume that is true for the principal. Find out what challenges she faces in the school and ask how you could help her make healthy food a bigger part of the school food culture. For example, are there vending machines filled with sodas and junk foods? Find out what it would take to remove them from the school grounds. Be prepared! It might take a petition and waiting till the vending machine contract expires.
  4. Are the fundraisers and booster clubs selling candies, cupcakes, frozen pizzas and hotdogs? Talk to them about upgrading their offerings. The goal is to make healthy options the default options when food is sold, even at fundraisers.
  5. Find out the name of your school or school district’s Food Services Director. Make an appointment to meet her and leave your assumptions at the door when you enter her office. Be curious about her work (yes, really!). Ask her about the issues she faces in the lunchrooms. Chances are she has massive challenges with training, staffing, supply chains, and budgetary constraints, just like many other businesses have experienced in the last three years. Also, remember that dietary specialists are under some unique pressures and try to do the best for the children they serve. Many schools do not even have fully equipped kitchens and are locked into service contracts with big food corporations! Your openness to learning the joys and concerns of the school lunch program will help the cafeteria transition when the time comes.
  6. Join the school Wellness Committee. Actively work with other committee members to write measurable health and wellness goals into policies. Then track their progress. Assure that school performance improvement plans contain specific language about making a nutritious school food culture the new normal.

Changing the school food culture takes time and effort, but making it simple to choose healthy food will benefit the faculty and students both today and in the future. A culture of eating well can be established at school and can span the entire school campus including everywhere food is offered, from small class parties to large school events, all over the school campus and beyond. There are many helpful free resources for transforming school food available on the internet. Search keywords “Transforming School Food.” The resources provided here are offered so that the readers can start looking at what is available. Then, we recommend the readers discern for themselves what works based on their values, ethics, and school environment. A (WFPB) after the website URL indicates the organization exclusively promotes whole food plant-based ways of eating.

A word of caution:
We denounce the use of animal products because of the impact it has on human, animal and planetary health. However, we have included some animal-centric websites in the list here because their information on transforming school food is informative and could be valuable in changing a school food culture. Several of the sites offer toolkits for school food transformation. While most advocate for more plants and scratch cooking, they may also include animal-product based recipes and language. Please be aware that some of the websites also have meat and dairy companies as sponsors. (WFPB) Click the button that says, “View All Products.” On the next page, scroll toward the bottom and select “Healthy Childhood Nutrition.” (WFPB) (WFPB) (WFPB)

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