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

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.

school lunch pizza

See for yourself

It might sound obvious, but do what Stern did: Go see the lunch offered in your child's school cafeteria. You may be shocked. What is that wobbling brown mass? Or you may be pleasantly surprised – look, fresh fruit! But you won't know until you go. It's not enough to rely on the school menus sent home or what your child tells you.

An anonymous elementary school teacher in the Midwest ate school lunch for a year, and lived to blog about it, in all its packaged, processed glory over at Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project. At the site Simple, Good, and Tasty, Lee Zukor served up a school lunch challenge to his readers. Parents across the country ate, snapped pics, and got all fired up over the muck that passes for a meal in their schools. Before you hit the school cafeteria, read this handy checklist on what to look for at lunch, courtesy of the non-profit Better School Food.


Photo credit: Ellie Strikes Weird

parents using computer

Do your homework

So much is happening on the school food front, you'll want to do some research to get up to speed. Late in 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which bans some junk food in schools and gives a small increase in the rate of reimbursement per child for lunch. The federal government is also behind Chefs Move to Schools, which enlists culinary professionals – like Stern, who signed on when the program launched – to help revamp food in schools; some 550 schools across the country are on board.

Independent school lunch success stories have sprouted in Chicago, New York City, and Boulder, Colorado, where Cooper runs the program, as well as elsewhere in the U.S. School food advocate Dana Woldow offers logistical and budgetary concerns to consider as you rethink school food on the blog The Lunch Tray. Woldow also recently co-founded a new school lunch reform resource for parents, PEACHSF, that's full of practical advice.

two moms talking

Seek out like-minded souls

Look for allies concerned about your school's food, including other parents, teachers, cafeteria staff, and the principal. PTA meetings, the school newsletter, and email listservs are all good places to find folks. Different individuals will want to tackle different lunch-related issues, Stern says. Some will want to outlaw packaging or introduce composting, others will want to get more fresh food or scratch cooking into the cafeteria, others may want to help serve the food.

Find out what's been done to improve the school's food before you showed up, advises Better School Food's Susan Rubin, one of the moms featured in the school lunch documentary Two Angry Moms. There's no need to reinvent the wheel.

parents meeting

Form or join a task force

Once you have a core group of interested people, get involved with or start a nutrition committee in your school or district. You'll want your group to include a cross section of stakeholders, Stern says, including food service directors, parents, teachers, and even students. (Check out the recommendations that a group of school kids from New Orleans came up with to improve school food. Top of their list? No more sporks!)

Find out how other schools have handled school food rules, budgetary constraints, and logistical considerations. Online resources include Lunch Love Community, a series of short films that document the steps taken by parents to overhaul school food in the Berkeley Unified School District, considered a model program. The Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy and The Chez Panisse Foundation (which supports Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program) also offer concrete ideas for revamping school lunch. And Ann Cooper's The Lunch Box provides loads of practical advice for overhauling school lunch.


Prioritize change

Come up with a list of ten things you want to fix. Eliminating trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and highly-refined carbohydrates often top the list. Increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, vegetarian meal options, and whole grains are other typical goals. Stern wanted to get rid of highly-processed packaged foods as soon as possible, and hopes one day soon to help the district replace factory-farmed meat with animal protein sourced locally from sustainable farmers.

Check sites like Let's Move Salad Bars to School and Farm to School to find simple steps you can take to improve food in schools.


Photo credit: Visions By Vicky

salad bar

Raise your school's food IQ

It's not enough to pull processed food from the cafeteria, install a salad bar, and expect everyone to get on board. Stern and a nutritionist on her committee were hired by the school district to educate the students about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and how to navigate the salad bar. They also gave taste tests, which generated a lot of excitement about the new additions in the cafeteria.

The grown-ups learned things, too. "We discovered that the salad bar and the sneeze guard were too high, and the tong handles too short, for the littlest kids," Stern says. "And we've done what we can to fix those problems."


Photo credit: BernalKC

school potluck

Celebrate success

Even small steps toward improving food are worth honoring. They can help build momentum for change while educating the school community. Stern suggests celebrating progress (while being open to constructive feedback) by holding an event – with food, of course! At such gatherings, consider showing one of the many documentary films that address healthy eating for kids, such as What's on your plate?, Lunch Line, or Nourish.


Photo credit: Will Merydith

Sarah Henry is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale. She has written about school food for The Atlantic Food Channel, Edible East Bay, and Civil Eats.

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