A mother of three and school volunteer, Dana Woldow became a cafeteria crusader when her second child, Max, was attending Aptos Middle School in San Francisco. Her efforts to ban junk food from her son’s school — and eventually the entire district — earned her a 2007 Jefferson Award for her community service.

Running on empty calories

For many years, cafeterias in San Francisco middle and high schools had à la carte cafes called “beaneries.” These cafes offered students a wide array of junk food but no healthy options. Students could choose between such items as hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and chips, and on-campus vending machines were stocked with soda. The principal at Aptos noticed that students would often have chips and soda for lunch.

After a district administrator refused to help integrate healthy foods into the school menus, the principal mentioned the problem to Woldow, who was already very involved at Aptos. She offered to look into the situation. The main objections to offering nutritious food seemed to be bureaucratic inertia and a fear that Student Nutrition Services (SNS) would lose a lot of money if it stopped selling the junk food everyone assumed kids wanted.

Making a change

Woldow went straight to the top. She approached then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman at a public event and asked her to support a pilot program to bring healthy food options to Aptos for the rest of the school year. Woldow promised to carefully track profits and losses so the district would know how such changes would affect its budget. The superintendent’s support made it more difficult for other administrators to stall the project.

Next Woldow organized a group of interested parents and got down to business. The parent group surveyed students about what types of healthy food they’d like, and Woldow worked with SNS to ensure that no empty calories were served in the beanery. In January 2003, fresh salads, homemade soups, and baked chicken with rice replaced burgers, pizza, and hot wings. The Coca-Cola vendor swapped out sodas for bottled water, 100% fruit juice, and nonfat milk. And cafeteria profits went up. At the end of the school year, Aptos had made a profit of $6,000, one of only three school cafeterias in the district to finish the year in the black.

Overcoming obstacles

While some teachers were concerned about getting rid of students’ freedom to choose, Woldow quickly pointed out that the food industry was spending $30 billion a year to persuade kids to eat junk. She helped the teachers understand that kids need some guidance to counteract that influence.

Resistance from the district administration was a major challenge, but getting the superintendent’s support helped Woldow avoid bureaucratic roadblocks. She also discovered that the best way to deal with an entrenched bureaucracy is sheer persistence: “Make up your mind that you won’t ever, ever, ever give up. When the bureaucracy understands that if they send you to Joe down the hall, you’ll be back with more supporters, they will do what you want.” And finding a measurable way to show results — by calculating profits, for example, and the numbers of kids who bought lunch — made Woldow’s arguments stronger.

Some unexpected benefits

The amount of litter at Aptos decreased noticeably once students began sitting down for lunch in the schoolyard instead of snacking. After-lunch discipline referrals to the counselor’s office dropped off right away as students consumed less caffeine and sugar. Teachers also noticed that students were more attentive in after-lunch classes. The benefits to the children and the school were so compelling that the school board implemented a healthier food policy district-wide the following year.

How to get involved at your school

Woldow recommends that parents start by volunteering to help with an existing project, especially if there is an unpopular job available. The other parents will be grateful for your help — and much more likely to back your ideas in the future. You’ll also build trust with the principal, who will know you’re a reliable volunteer. Intimidated about approaching important people like principals and superintendents? Remember that they are all public servants, says Woldow. Finally, to gain broader support, parents should publicize their efforts by posting to online chatrooms, contacting the media, and talking to friends and neighbors.