From the school board to the statehouse, the food served at school is the focus of debate.

The statistics that started the food fights are familiar: One in five U.S. children is overweight, and increasing numbers of them are developing type 2 diabetes, an illness that used to be limited to adults.

Efforts to give kids healthier meal options have seen success: Soft drink makers have agreed to stop selling soda in elementary and middle schools, vending machines are being locked during school hours and salad bars are springing up in lunchrooms.

But they’ve also prompted a backlash from parents angry that “the food police” are taking the fun out of school celebrations by banning cupcakes. Other parents found out just how tough it can be to make changes when cash-strapped schools rely on the proceeds from vending machines, students balk at less fat-laden fare and lunchrooms are set up to reheat not cook from scratch.

But plenty of parents have made a difference in shaping children’s food choices and in advocating for healthier menus in school.

What can parents do?

Here are some tips, based in part on recommendations from the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, on how you can improve your child’s nutrition at school and at home:

  • Get familiar with the menu. Keep a current school lunch menu and discuss it with your child. Schools offer food that meets guidelines for good nutrition, but they can’t force kids to eat it. Students need to make the right choices.
  • Ask questions. Find out who decides what is for lunch. Who determines school policies on vending machines and snacks in the cafeteria and student store?
  • Get involved. Join or start a parent advisory council for the school food service program. Learn how parents and students can participate in the decision-making process. Schools that involve students in changing the menu, rather than simply imposing a new one, have a better chance at getting them to accept healthier meals.
  • Support the nutrition education efforts at school. If your school has an edible garden, volunteer to help. If none exists, create one. Sustainable Table has information about how to start one.
  • Encourage your child to pack his own lunch. Help him pick healthy choices that are fun to eat, such as string cheese, fruit, carrot sticks and pudding cups. If he packs it, he will be more likely to eat it.
  • Make your child a savvy media consumer. Kids are bombarded with TV advertisements for sugary cereal and treats. Point out the techniques advertisers use to make their products attractive.
  • Teach your child about nutritional labels. It will help her reading skills and make her a smart consumer if you make a game out of finding out how many names there are for ‘sugar’ in a label.
  • Advocate for the laws you want. Write to your representatives at the state and federal level. Express your concerns about school lunches, the placement of vending machines at your child’s school or requirements for physical education programs.