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How to improve your school's lunch program

Tired of seeing chicken nuggets, tater tots, and chocolate milk on the school lunch menu? Here are seven simple steps to give your school cafeteria a healthy makeover.

By Sarah Henry

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healthy lunch

Lobbying for lunch

Credit (lunch lady and gent) crusaders like Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Ann Cooper (also known as the Renegade Lunch Lady), and First Lady Michelle Obama for working hard to reform school food in the U.S. Ditto concerned parents and educators. Michelle Stern in San Rafael, CA, is a nutritionist, chef, and author of The Whole Family Cookbook. She's also the mother of two children who saw what her kids were being offered to eat at school – heavily processed and packaged foods – and started a campaign to fix the food in her school district.

Stern counts removing sugary cereals and introducing salad bars in her kids' schools among recent victories. "If we can do it in my school district, you can do it in yours," Stern says. "This is not something that only other people do – we can all do it."

Here's her seven-point plan for turning around your child's school lunch program.

Sarah Henry is a Bay Area-based freelance food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

Comments from readers

"The food they serve at my children's school is horrible. Most days I send my kids to school with lunch because they refuse to eat the school lunch. On occasion I have seen what they are having and I wouldn't eat it myself. Humus sandwiches, plain hamburgers(a hamburger pattie on a bun) no condiments, plain meat sandwiches with artifical cheese, vegetarian pizza, tofu salad or cheese sandwiches with soup (once again they use artifical cheese) they do get 2% milk or chocolate milk and a piece of fruit. Healthy food can be good and the schools need to serve food that our kids will eat. "
"Hi, I love the idea of better schools lunch ,my daughter its going to start kindergarten next year and I want the better for her . Thanks of all this people who do the difference ..... "
"Stop serving strawberry milk and chocolate milk it is loaded with sugar. offer more salads instead of fries. Watch this man on tv on channel two wmar. he is trying to change the way we serve lunches in school no more process mess. Serve smoothies with yogurt and real fruit."
"I liked it when the lunch ladies made everything from scratch and cold chocolate milk to wash it down. screw all these health nuts, they die before the "
"I know many kids love chocolate milk and pizza, etc... I don't see anything wrong with it. I agree with the person who said feed your kid a healthy meal at home. Let them enjoy what they eat at school. It makes the day funner for kids. Kids need the extra carbs."
"I get tired of hearing complaints about school food. Its been like that since before WE were kids and its not going to stop. Kids should be getting their nutrition from home! Feed your kids a healthy and big breakfast and a home cooked supper and then you don't have to worry about them not getting their nutrition from school. Don't want them eating the food given at school? Pack their lunch!!! Parents...step up and do your job!!!"
"Well, this comes down to education. Many parents especially in lower income neighborhoods are completely oblivious to what their kids should be eating as well as themselves and this is why many american adults are obese too; they are either uneducated, don't care or have such a low income they can't afford real unprocessed food. Guess who's making billions out of this? The drug companies! Hers's some adhd medicine because your child can't focus or here's some insulin for you obese related disease, oh you have depression because of your weight, here's some anti-depressents; they love it!! Let me just say its way easier to add a few real meals into a school than the government is letting on and i'm not talking about wheat grass and water! I'm talking about real food instead of processed, do you know how much sugar is in one of those chocolate milks? More than a can of soda! It's garbage!"
"If parents watch what their kids eat at home then we don't have to worry so much about some chocolate milk or a slice of pizza. Schools have enough to worry about without having to force every child to eat their vegetables!"
"I'd rather have kids eat something than get forced 'health food' and go hungry. If you want your kid to eat carrots, wheat grass, and water then pack their lunch. School food has always been marginal at best awful at worst. If I could choke down school food it was an ok day. Not until High School when I could pick from a variety of options did I actually get to eat a full meal everyday."
"I'm sorry, but great schools start with great nutrition! A child who is not pumped up on sugar and simple carbohydrates like the nasty pizza they serve at my kids school are going to be more focused and have more sustained energy throughout their day. Sure a healthier menu might take a few tries for the kids for them to adjust to it but people this is so important!!!! Our nation is suffering at the hands of an epidemic called obesity and with it comes diabetes and the like. Exercise and nutrition should be at the fore front of our childs education along with math and science NOT an elective"
"I hate my middleschools lunch menu. they give me pizza, french fries, potato chips, and flavored milk. its horrible and i know some skinny people who turned fat because of their food. I usually get the healthy stuff like apples and juice( from concentrate but thats the healthiest thing they have there). Also, they say that they have healthy food also like apples and vegetables but i tell them that noone takes it because who is gonna take veggies and fruits instead of pizza!!! "
"We need to get the extra sugar and unnecessary carbs out of our childrens diet. Flavored milk is worse than a can of soda, dump it. Pizza is not a healthy choice, dump it.Instead of sandwiches do wraps with whole wheat tortillas,I do and my grandkids love them. Give them more fruit and veggie options, trust me kids will keep trying them when shown in a kid friendly way. Offer water, flavored iced tea(no sugar)and healthy fruit juices and the children will surprise you with their choices. Help fight childhood obesity and help drop the rate of diabetes in elementary school children, it can save their lives. We can be creative and healthy and children will enjoy new foods in their lives."
"I think that the government needs to get out of the school lunch programs and worry more about the bigger things that are wrong with our schools. School lunch menus are a way of bringing in monies into a school system. I work in a school lunch program and the foods provided are of good quality and quite nutritious and guess what they also taste good. Now you are talking about banning chocolate milk get real. If you cut out milk which costs more than water the school districts are not going to cut down the prices of their meal program. Sounds like a way for First Lady Michelle Obama to surreptitiously try and make extra revenue for schools by short changing kids on the foods they can choose from to eat. Keep the nanny state out of schools!"
"At [my granddaughter's high school], if students have the last lunch period, there isn't much, if any, food left. My granddaughter comes home every day having not eaten lunch. My daughter e-mailed the principal, and he will not respond. There are many students complaining of the same thing. This is unfair and is not right that our children are not offered the chance of having nutrition."