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HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Three ways to revolutionize school lunch programs

Need help banning mystery meat from your school's cafeteria? Get the tools you need from these organizations dedicated to serving up better lunches.

Child holding potato chip

—Flickr/heacphotos

By Carol Lloyd

It seems like a no-brainer: Just feed our kids healthy lunches and get back to the business of educating them, right?

Not so fast. Wander into your average U.S. school cafeteria, equipped with nothing but an industrial deep fryer and a shipping container’s worth of Tater Tots, and even the most salmon-oil -slurping, flaxseed-crunching health-food fanatic might be tempted to run screaming in the other direction.

If you’re brave enough to approach the stoic lunch lady (with a 50-pound bag of sloppy joe filling slung over one shoulder) to talk about starting a salad bar, chances are you’ve barely scratched the surface of the Sisyphean task ahead.

Being a lone school lunch revolutionary isn’t for the faint-hearted.

But now there is help. Here are three paths to making over your school’s cafeteria with the support of bona fide food fighters. Each of these organizations approaches the problem from a different angle, but all offer assistance to the parents, school administrators, and cooks who want to shift school lunches away from mystery meat to nourishing, delicious meals:

  • The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine launched the Healthy School Lunch Campaign to advocate for improved school lunches and to provide step-by-step instructions on how a fledging food warrior might broach the topic with the principal. Unlike many other organizations, the good doctors don’t assume you already know the battleground: They offer a simple history of the National School Lunch Program and first steps for curing this nationwide problem. The campaign’s school lunch report cards grade school districts on their cafeteria food and health-education efforts. This is a great place to start your action today!
  • Farm to School programs connect farms with nearby schools — with the twin goals of producing healthier school lunches with more fresh produce and supporting local farmers. These programs exist in all but five states and involve more than 2,000 districts nationwide. The website farmtoschool.org has information on some of these programs and offers the greenhorn activist plenty of resources for building a strategic plan. There are listings for available grants, free resource packs, and regional offices that can help you take the first steps to get locally grown fruits and vegetables onto your school’s cafeteria trays.
  • The Lunch Box — a website started by Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady of the Berkeley Unified School District, and funded by Whole Foods Market — provides an online toolbox for changing school lunches one district at a time. The healthy recipes are both scalable and priced, and the technical tools are designed to help administrators manage and evaluate a new food system. The educational resources — including videos, community forums, relevant studies on nutrition, and clickable maps — invite a national conversation on reforming school lunches. If you’re serious about converting your school to a better way of feeding its students, the Lunch Box gives you the tools to build your argument and the resources for cafeterias to ditch the junk food.

Carol Lloyd is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

01/23/2012:
"Wow that was really interesting, thank you so much :) "
01/10/2012:
"While most might appreciate Ms Lloyds suggestions on how to help improve school cafeterias, the opening derogatory comments about the folks who work hard everyday to serve children is unecessary and unprofessional. If she truly wants to revolutionize school meals - a positive approach is more likely to win over those who actually get the job done than childish comments that serve no purpose. "
09/10/2010:
"I would hope all Salisbury-Rowan County School systems could recieve this letter and have healthy school lunches for all children!"
02/16/2010:
"Why not just your child with a bag lunch from home?"
02/4/2010:
"Ok what shcool districts are you two 'lunch ladies' from? I can tell you my district is the freezer queen. Other than the fresh fruit they offer (which I tell my child - avoid as I know they don't wash it, it is handled by the kids who haven't washed their hands) it all comes prepared to the school. They only reheat foods. There is no whole foods or edible foods getting to the kids. The trash receptacles get fed very well. Most of the time I send lunch with mine. The staff actually made fun of him and I for my latest - sending spinach salad. I usually make for two because his friends always want to try! I don't feed my kid tv dinners at home and I don't understand why that is what schools across the nation are doing. None of the staff eat the lunchroom food. One of our high schools revolted and the students didn't purchase anything from the cafeteria for 2 days. Administration made promises they never fulfilled and the kids that led the revolt were appropriately punished ove! r the year. Though the district claims no student was lol. Our lunchrooms are right on par with the classrooms."
02/4/2010:
"Folks, do your own research: the organization cited in this article, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is a radical animal-rights group NOT recognized by the AMA or other mainstream medical groups. They are dangerous because they are driven by a hidden agenda that is far outside the realm of ordinary people. Don't take my word for it - look it up! Shame on you, GreatSchools!"
09/22/2009:
"I SUBBED THIS WEEK AND LAST WEEK THE AMOUNT OF FOOD THAT THHE NUTRITIONAL DEPT THROW AWY IS A SHAME THEY POPORTION AND MEASURE WHAT THEY GIVE TO STUDENTS YET THEY THROW AWAY THEY CHARGED FRO DOUBLE PORTIONS AND NEVER OFFER SECONDS COME ON ALL OF THE FOOD WE SEND OUT OUR CHILDREN IN SCHOOLS SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO EAT SOME OF THEM THIS MAYBE IS THEIR ONLY MEALS THIS IS MY COMMENTS JUST OBSERVING THE LAST FEW WEEKS I COULD IMAGE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I AM NOT HERE THANKS FOR LISTENING WE SHOULD HAVE FREE MEALS FOR ALL THE STUDENTS AND MAKE THE STAFF IS NOT CONTOLLING THE PORTIONS "
09/10/2009:
"This is wonderful. I am glad to see that people are trying to get our children eating better. My boys were in school 18 years ago. But I also had a gift from GOD, a little boy after 16 years who will be starting school this friday. I don't know the doos and don't about snacks for preschool. Thank you for this input. Happy Holly"
09/10/2009:
"Not sure how long it has been since you stepped into a K-8 cafeteria but must have been many years ago. Would welcome a visit from you anytime at any of our 11 cafeterias where we feed over 7,000 healthy meals day after day. Two six foot salad bars stuffed with local fresh fruits and veggies along with whole grain pasta salads are just a few of the options for all students K-8 to choose from. FF milk has been offered and preferred by our students the last 10 years in white and chocolate flavor. All bakery items (including sliced bread, hot dog buns and hamburger buns) are whole grain along with any breading used on food items. Breakfast items such as french toast, pancakes and waffle sticks are all whole grain and are served with a slight sprinkling of powdered sugar but not syrup. Only 100% full strength juices are offered. As to the fryers you mention I am sure you are mistaken as in the 15 years I have been working with our district I have yet to see a fryer of any ty! pe in any kitchen. If you indeed have observed the scene you described in your story of the industrial fryer and the lunch lady with 50 lb. bag of sloppy joe mix I would suggest that it is the exception rather than the rule in schools today and should be addressed Let's see, if I remember right today students were offered fresh kiwi, fresh strawberries, fresh local watermelon, fresh local cantaloupe, fresh local honeydew, fresh oranges, fresh apples, fresh red grapes, water packed diced peaches, water packed diced pears. And that was on one of the two salad bars. The veggie bar had fresh broccoli, fresh cherry tomato, fresh romaine salad mix, fresh carrots sticks,fresh celery sticks, fresh cucumbers, two whole grain pasta salads, red kidney beans, and low fat cottage cheese. If available we use organic produce on the salad bars. An interesting result of offering the salad bars has been the participation of a group students who do not always eat balanced meals. We have found our 6-8 grade female students to be some of our best customers at the salad bars. One of our goals has always been to teach and offer students the opportunity to develop life long eating habits that are healthy and nutritious by offering only healthy options for them to choose from every day for every meal. Thanks for the opportunity to give my two cents worth"
09/8/2009:
"I am completely offended by the remarks made by the author of this article, Carol LLoyd. Oviously Carol has not done all of her homework on school lunches and the requirements made on school cafeterias by the USDA! Schools are mandated by the USDA to comply with the nutrition requirements that are set for the age group of children that the cafeteria is serving. Menus are checked regularly by the USDA to make sure that schools are abiding by these rules. Our school does not even own a deep fryer. Every 'french fry' or 'tator tot' is Baked. Schools are already in touch with nearby farms to provide foods to the schools - this is called the 'commodity program' - also a USDA program. A federal law prohibits schools from serving soda pop. And certainly, not every 'lunch lady' is so scary and carrying a 50 lb bag of sloppy joe's over her shoulder...it's ideals like this that give the cafeteria a bad name and it would be nice to be appreciated. Lunch is a huge part of a stu! dents day at school. I can't tell you the number of times we are contacted by teachers, administrators, etc. to provide them with something, change the menu to suit their school function needs, etc. It's articles like these that make it so that the cafeteria staff is looked down upon, not only by the 'educated' staff, but by the students. Maybe Carol should take a day or two to work in a school cafeteria and see what it's really all about - not that she would even touch on what all she would need to know to do the job properly."
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