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 your child and other 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?

    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

    Talk with the people who are in the school food trenches: the food service workers. You can learn a lot from them. What foods do they see kids eat, not eat, and throw away? Are they seeing kids making any healthy choices and most important, are there any healthy choices given to the kids or is it mostly grey meat in sauce and overcooked vegetables? Many schools now get packaged lunches sent district-wide, rather than made on site. If this is the case, you may need to go to the source, the district office, to suggest any changes or even work to change the company supplying the lunches if they are sub-par.

  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. Read “Become a Legislative Advocate for Your Child’s School” for tips on letting lawmakers know what you think.

  6. Build health education into your family’s daily life.

    Talk about nutrition and nutrition labels when you go to the grocery store with your child. Next time you’re in the produce section, buy a fruit or vegetable you haven’t served for a while — you might find that what was yucky to your child a few months ago is now yummy.

Get your whole family moving in good or bad weather with these activities for preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders, second- through fifth-graders, and tweens and teens.