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How parents can help schools get healthy

Do your school's food and fitness programs make the grade? Give them a checkup and learn how to promote health education with these easy tips.

By GreatSchools Staff

Healthy kids learn better, research shows. Poor eating and fitness habits not only threaten children's physical well-being but also their academic achievement. The right diet and exercise can result in better grades, higher test scores, and greater self-esteem.

Action for Healthy Kids and other organizations have identified ways parents and parent groups can advocate for their children's health at school. Here's what they advise:

1. Ask for a copy of your school's wellness policy.

Every school district that participates in the National School Lunch Program is required by the federal government to have one. The policy is supposed to include:

  • Nutrition guidelines for the food sold during the school day
  • Goals for nutrition and physical education
  • A plan to implement them and a person responsible for doing so

Because districts are required to involve parents and community members in developing these policies, your school or district may already have a wellness committee. Find out who is working to promote wellness and how you can be involved.

2. See for yourself.

Eat lunch in the school cafeteria or volunteer to supervise there to find out what choices are offered. Talk to the students about what they like and don't like about eating lunch there. Other things to pay attention to:

  • Is the room attractive to kids?
  • How much time do they wait in line?
  • How much time do they have to eat?
  • What foods are they choosing, and what is getting thrown away un

Look at your school's playground equipment and sports fields:

  • Are they safe and well maintained?
  • Could your parent group raise money to improve them or buy new equipment — jump ropes, balls, or pedometers — to improve fitness?
  • Are there simple changes that might help students become more physically active? In Casper, Wyo., school officials experimented with giving elementary school children recess before lunch rather than afterward. They found that kids took more time to eat rather than throwing their food in the trash and rushing off to join their friends on the playground.

3. Check in with the cafeteria staff.

Meet with the food service workers to find out about the challenges of their jobs, their training, and, more important, their ideas for improving the food students eat each day.

4. Talk to the principal or district administrator.

Ask questions such as:

  • How can students and families get more involved in nutrition? (A Penn State study found that high school students whose schools posted nutritional information chose healthier food and were more satisfied with food quality and service than students whose schools didn't provide such information. Dr. Lillian Cheung of the Harvard School of Public Health's Nutrition Department says involving students and families is the secret to success in the programs she has studied. In Baltimore public schools, students were invited to taste tests in cafeterias, and chefs offered parents lessons in low-fat cooking. Other schools have used produce grown by students in school gardens.)
  • What foods are sold to students outside of the cafeteria?
  • How many days and minutes do students participate in physical education? (Health experts recommend at least 30 minutes a day, every day.)
  • Do after-school programs offer time for physical activity and a healthy snack? Could the school partner with community organizations to provide or improve these programs?

5. Ask what parents can do to help.

Offer your sweat equity. Can your parent group make the cafeteria a more attractive place to eat? Does the space need to be reorganized so that students can be served more efficiently?

Offer to investigate outside sources of funds to improve physical education. Heart-rate monitors, salad bars, and dance machines cost money. Some schools have gotten corporate or foundation support to help pay for new programs and equipment.

Be an advocate. Get the support of your principal, cafeteria workers, teachers, and community members to build a healthy learning environment. Action for Healthy Kids' Campaign for School Wellness has a wealth of information and a Wellness Policy Tool. Read "Become a Legislative Advocate for Your Child's School" for tips on letting lawmakers know what you think.

Comments from readers

"This article is very useful and necessary! As a teacher I can see the impact that food has on our students and I agree that our nation needs to make some big adjustments fast. I recently wrote a book called Sincerely, the Teacher: The Top 10 Things Teachers Want Parents to Know, and having a healthy breakfast was on the list! You can read more about it on my blog 'An Apple a Day Gives Your Child An 'A'' at Thank you for your worthwhile articles Great Schools! "
"I think that Schools should start to use pedometers and make them reach a certain step. I think that will help at least 75Percent of Childhood Obeisity. The other half woul dgo away by schools handing out Healthy Foods. That is My opinion on school luch and things like that."
"How can we as parents choose another company to provide our kids lunches? I have 2 children in the clifton school system and one of them refuses to eat the school lunch because the food tastes rubbery meaning the meats. The other one is slowly getting tired of the same foods. Who do we reach out to the superintendant of the school system or the actual school?"
"I am a supervisor for noon hour recess. I enjoy the kids and try to keep postive. We start with 100 fifth, which is four classes. All class have that many except for first graders and 125 of them. They go through the lunch line great. We have two ladies who are helpers doing milk, straws anything the kids need. The kids are allowed to talk during lunch. It's clap, clap and waste baskets are brought around to the table's so they do't get up at all. They have 30 min in all. Their is way too much talking as of now! They are dismissed as tables sit and try to be quiet. The recess supervisor are now in controll, the problem is how do we get and keep them quiet down the hall till outside? Nothing seems to work and I am trying to figure something out that works and haven't got there yet. Would love any input I can get. Need kids to be not talking when ask shouldn't have to do 5 times or more getting ready to go out. We do have teachers in hall area when leaving for outside. Thank you very much. Lesley"
"I am a sophmore at Clay High School in Oregon, Ohio, and a group of friends and I are petitioning for a salad bar which includes fruit as well. Though we believe this is a great idea, we do not think it will pass pass because of low-budget spending. I wanted to know if it would be cheaper to buy fresh produce (tomatoes, onions, lettus, cucumber, ect...) than to buy pre-packaged and frozen produce."
"I fix my kids' lunches. I need good fast tips on healthy snacks to put in their lunches that they will eat."
"I have been quite impressed with the lunches served at my daughter's elementary school. They serve whole grain breads and unlimited trips to the salad bar. Nor do they don't offer sugar drinks. I do, however, wish they would have recess before lunch so kids wouldn't rush through lunch. I will take it upon myself to bring it up at the next PTO meeting."
"Our school lunches are dismal.The atmosphere is oppressive and selections are the same all year. Old salad. Canned peaches. Government subsidized canned or packaged foods. Nothing fresh but bagged lettuce with carrot shreds. Mostly canned/pre prepared meals from fast food places. The school cafeteria actually gets discounts for purchasing this c&*p! The kids get about 25 minutes to eat, including standing in line and are not allowed to talk and visit much. The cafeteria monitor yells at them and makes them do walking laps instead of letting them go out for recess if they have been 'naughty' or 'too loud'. They often have to sit on the benches outside the cafeteria and wait. Because they were loud. Schools need to let kids know how to eat properly, and supply the foods they need to eat. Our school has contracts with the soda company to get kickbacks for the pop they sell the kids. 20 oz. bottles! And we wonder why America is obese! "
"Our school has a wellness plan, but it is not followed to well. I think the best thing our school and about any school is to give the kids more time to eat. I believe we are teaching our kids to eat to fast. I have noticed it in all my kids in all the meals they eat with me. 10 to 15 minutes to eat is not enough time. Lunch hour starts for my kids the minute they leave the classroom, which includes standing in line to get their lunch. Better eating habits also includes taking your time."
"Agreeing with the e-mail from New Jersey, Pizza & fries are the only item my child will purchase at school, their salads are not fresh and there's no other option of nutiritious foods to choose from. Even the subs that are offered aren't good.I suggest a NEW MENU and have a Variety to choose from each day besides the pizza, fries, hamburgars. Where's the vegetables,fresh fruits because Healthy children are happier.... "
"Good nutrition is huge, but I take great stock in personal hygiene. My children are always washing their hands and are rarely sick (knock on wood). Healthy kids = happy kids."
"I truly wish this district would take nutrition more seriously then it does. Pizza and french fries served everyday for lunch is a crime with childhood obesity being such a huge problem in this country. OBESITY-- THE SECONF LEADING CAUSE OF PREVENTABLE DEATH should mean something here!!!!!!!"