Monday, June 14, 2010

How We Are Changing Food at Our School

Guest Post
By Sara Jones

This past September, a half-dozen parents signed a sheet on a table run by our PTA at “Back to School Night” at our local elementary school to say we were interested in being on a nutrition committee. As it turns out, we all believed the school lunch needed major changes. A couple of parents working on their own had tried over the years to persuade the food services director to make various changes with varying degrees of success. This year we had enough angry parents to make a difference.

We live in Sea Cliff, NY, a quite small village in the suburbs of Long Island. It’s part of the North Shore School District, which has, by no means, the worst lunches I’ve seen. At the elementary level, no french fries, no tater tots. Entrees are not served while still in their plastic re-heatable bags. We are one of the handful of schools to always meet government standards for salt and fat in our meals when inspected. And yet – we are completely dependent on highly processed commodity foods like chicken nuggets and frozen pizzas stuffed full of additives and canned fruits and vegetables loaded with extra salt and sugar. The standards for salt and fat are a joke. Moreover – the pile of lunch bags from home is growing every year.

We were lucky that the district had a district-wide nutrition committee and monthly meeting structure in place, and we started there. We were also fortunate that our district is small and our administration accessible. The first thing we wanted was to see the labels for the food our kids were (or weren’t) eating. Essentially, we insisted we had a right to know what was in the food and had to volunteer to assemble and scan them ourselves before finally getting the labels.

If you want to change your school’s lunch – get the labels.

The information on the cans and boxes is in many cases simply stunning. The USDA commodity corn has not only added salt but sugar. The “Harvest Pizza” that Schwan processed from commodity cheese has 830 mg of sodium but no vegetables (why “Harvest”?). We went further and started calling manufacturers to confirm the chicken nuggets were fried and the green beans boiled already in the can. This information was certainly persuasive to parents and ultimately to administrators as well. We were able to get some of the worst items off the menu quickly (pancakes for lunch, fruit punch without much fruit.) but the rest will take longer.

We started a blog. We added pages to the PTA’s website. We emailed class parents, and they passed the information on to other parents. We surveyed families about the lunch. We packed the district’s nutrition meetings until the administration started showing up in force, and we knew we were getting somewhere. We spoke at board meetings or any place we knew the superintendent would hear us. We asked a lot of questions – about the school lunch program, our school’s lunch budget and what commodity foods were available. We asked to see everything.

We worked to be supportive of nutrition education and our school in general. The nutritionist on our committee visited kindergarten classes to teach about nutrition. We worked with our school’s enrichment teacher and a 5th grader launched her own letter-writing campaign to get the Child Nutrition Act re-authorized. We took a brief break to get our district’s budget passed.

Some of the changes we were talking about would not be popular with all parents, so we came up with more plans. At the school talent show, we commandeered the bake sale and sold whole grain treats without processed sugar. It was a hit – and we made some money we’d need later. We showed the film Two Angry Moms at a PTA meeting and luckily had an administrator and future ally in attendance. We held a healthy chili cook-off with students as judges and put the winning recipe on the menu. We invited a local chef to do a hands-on healthy snack demonstration with the children to show kids will eat things that are good for them. We talked about healthy eating and shopping ideas on our blog.

Someone on our nutrition committee does some work to improve our school’s lunch every day – at least one person, at least once a day. It’s a huge amount of effort and having a group of supporters behind you is critical. Meeting after meeting – and now they are constant -- district meetings, snack committee meetings, menu meetings, meetings with teachers. We stick to our core list of demands: more whole grains, more fresh fruits and vegetables, less added salt and sugar, less processing in general and more education.

We still have a long way to go. But so far, with the support of the administration, here’s where we believe we’ll be in September:

- Cancelled contracts for processing commodities into chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and mozzarella sticks. Our district will make its own chicken and get a healthier pizza locally
- No more flavored milk
- A salad bar once a week
- More whole grains – we’ve already switched the pasta and will look at rolls, etc.
- A more expensive lunch – the survey we did indicated parents would pay more than the current $2.25 if the food was better. We also felt that students paying full price should not in effect be subsidized by students entitled to a free lunch by paying less than the federal reimbursement rate for the free lunch.
- An overhaul in the desserts sold at lunch to limit salt, sugar and additives and make sure all foods have some nutritional value
- Organic fruit trees! Once our superintendent became involved he found a grant that will bring 40 organic fruit trees to the district.
- Small greenhouses (“hoop houses”) at each school funded by the PTAs

We need to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into our lunch. Our school needs to start serving breakfast. We’d love to see organic or locally grown food, and we’ll keep working. We’re trying to envision a welcoming, warm and bright lunch room where kids truly look forward to a meal that’s good for them in every sense. We want the kids to know what they’re eating, why and where it came from – and to be involved in that process. Like many of you, we don’t doubt we’ll be working on this for years.

If you’re just starting to figure out how to change your school’s lunch, get the labels and get organized. All schools are required to have a Wellness Policy that covers nutrition among other things and that requires a wellness committee which should include parents. Ask how you can be involved.

Our commodities are probably your commodities, so please visit our blog to read more about what’s for lunch – and what’s in it. We have more information about our group at our web page. Our district now posts the nutrition labels for the food.

If you’re working to change school food on Long Island in particular – please contact us!


  1. BRAVO!
    You're 100% right, it's the ingredients not the calories or carbs.
    Sounds like you've made some nice headway. Keep up the great work and keep shouting from the rooftops so that others will believe that meaningful change is possible.

  2. Fantastic!
    Was it hard to get the labels?
    Did they try to roadblock you or was that fairly easy?
    Keep Up the GREAT Work!
    and it was/is a lot of work!

  3. wonderful ideas..I will share this! Leah McGrath

  4. In response to Viki --

    It wasn't that hard to get the food services director to agree 'in theory' to give us the labels -- but in actuality, it took some work. First, we were told they had the labels but no one had time to scan them. So, we volunteered to do the scanning. When we went to get the labels, it turns out they didn't really have them all. So, we volunteered to take what they had and get the rest ourselves from the kitchen. Suddenly, the labels appeared, we scanned them, and they were posted fairly quickly to the district's website. Parents should feel entitled to know what is in the food, but you may have to be persistent to actually get the labels. Another challenge is that they food your school actually gets may vary over the year and it can be tough to keep up with. We've also learned to ask for a label off the can or box -- not a USDA fact sheet which is not specific enough. Once you have the label, you can also call the manufacturer to learn more about how the food was prepared -- they are happy to tell you. And if your district doesn't want to post the information, a blog is a great and free way to do it yourselves day by day which is what we've been doing recently.

    Sara Jones

  5. Under the "Yealthy Schools Act" passed recently by the D.C. Council, schools are required henceforth to post the ingredients in all the food. In the meantime, one place to find the ingredient labels is in the dumpster where all the boxes from the kitchen get tossed.