6 Steps Parents Can Take to Improve Greasy School Cafeteria Food

Grilled cheese, onion rings, garlicky green beans and Tostitos chips with salsa. That’s what was on the lunch menu one day at the end of the 2018-19 school year at many New York City public schools. Two days later, students got chicken and waffles with home fries and creamed spinach. Fried carbs and a sad vegetable: This is what school lunches look like in much of America. It’s a little hard to swallow when you realize that a sample lunch in Greece includes baked chicken over orzo, while kids in Italy get local fish on a bed of arugula. Probably not unrelated: The U.S. has among the highest ­childhood obesity rates in the world.

Our school lunches were starting to look up a few years ago. Michelle Obama worked to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required cafeterias to lower sodium levels, cut back on higher-fat flavored milk, and add more whole grains. Recently, however, those healthier guidelines have been relaxed. The Obama-era rules required all carb-centric foods (such as pizza, pasta and hot dog buns) to be whole-grain-rich—meaning they must contain at least 50 percent whole grains—but, with the new relaxed guidelines, only half of these foods have to meet that standard.

Schools are freer to serve low-fat chocolate milk instead of only nonfat. And although schools will still have to cut back on the amount of sodium in cafeteria lunches, the new guidelines allow for an extra 300 milligrams. Why the changes? The USDA insists the relaxed rules will give schools more ­flexibility to serve appealing foods. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, appointed by President Trump, said in a statement: “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted.”

But many concerned parents, nutritionists and advocates say that reasoning is a bunch of baloney. A 2015 study found that students ate more fruit and did not throw out more of their meals under the new standards, and a 2016 study found no link between the type of food and food waste.

“This is definitely a step backward for our children,” says Sara Porter, Vice President of External Affairs for the Healthy Schools Campaign, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that kids in Chicago’s public school system (and beyond) have access to healthy, nutritional food. “We are concerned that schools will choose to serve meals to the lesser standard because it’s easier, even though it’s not what is best for the students.”

The quality of our school lunches matters for many reasons. For starters, healthy eating habits developed early in life are more likely to continue into adulthood (thus reducing adult obesity and diabetes). There have also been countless studies that link nutrition to learning. “A lot of work has been done to show that kids who eat a healthy breakfast can focus better, do better in school, are more alert, and more awake,” says Kirsten Tobey, co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at Revolution Foods, a food-service company that dishes out 2 million healthy, chef-crafted meals per week to schools and community programs in 15 states.

We’re not just talking about lunches either. More than 90,000 schools and institutions also serve breakfasts to 14.7 million students each day. A majority of these breakfasts and lunches—plus snacks and after-school meals—are provided for free or at a reduced cost for kids coming from low-income households, which increases cause for concern.

“These kids are heavily reliant on school meals for their nutrient intake for the day,” Tobey points out. “When you downgrade the nutritional quality of all of those meals for the day, it’s going to have a huge impact on kids. That’s where we see the disproportionate impact on low-income communities.” So poorer kids get less-healthy food, don’t perform as well in school, and unfortunately, the cycle continues. Of course, the quality of a school’s meals can vary, but generally, students in more-affluent areas have healthier options.

Whether that describes your neighborhood, chances are you’re unhappy with what’s being served up. And you’re not alone: During the Obama era, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health-focused philanthropy, found that 72 percent of parents surveyed favor national standards for meals and snacks. More and more parents are voicing their concerns, and groups such as the Chef Ann Foundation (which helps schools create healthier menus) received almost $100,000 in civilian donations in 2018. While you can take on a big-but-totally-doable goal to help your school get a grant to, say, install a salad bar, there are also smaller, less-time-consuming things you can do.

We spoke to real (busy!) working moms who’ve made a difference at their kids’ schools to get some tips and pointers for easy, impactful things you can do to change the food on offer in your local school cafeterias.

1. Find out who’s in charge.

There’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape wrapped around school lunch programs. Menus and food purchasing usually happen at the district level, which means your principal is probably not the decision-maker and has no authority over the food program. The first step: Learn who is controlling what’s being served in your school. Usually this is the district’s school nutrition director, says Bettina Elias Siegel, founder of the Lunch Tray, a blog about children and food-policy news and commentary. Once you have a name, “you should be able to find his or her contact info on your district’s website,” she advises.

2. Come up with a specific goal.

Saying you want to improve the school cafeteria menu is a good start. You’ll be more successful, though, if you prioritize your objectives, make clear requests, and then work step by step to get there. “You can’t expect your district to overhaul its entire meal program overnight. But you could, for example, aim to install salad bars in a certain percentage of the district’s elementary schools by a certain date, and then figure out how to find that extra funding,” says Siegel, who has successfully petitioned to get pink slime (a ground-beef filler) out of school lunches, and more. Maybe you want a new vegetable added, or whole wheat swapped in for white bread. Have a list of what the most important wins would look like.

3. Join forces with other parents.

Chances are, you are not the only one who’s worried about your district’s school lunch. And you’ve heard of strength in numbers, right? “It’s usually best to band together with other like-minded parents,” Siegel says. “When you go it alone, you’re too easily written off as that mom.” There might already be a PTA committee devoted to student wellness or some other group that you can join. In 2010, Siegel joined a committee in her district that was formed to advise the school-nutrition department on its menus; she got more involved from there. Voice your concerns to the other moms at drop-off, ask your principal or your nutrition-services department if there’s an existing group, or check Facebook. There might already be an online group dedicated to improving your district’s cafeteria standards.

4. Start a Facebook group if there isn’t one.

Karla Lemmon, of Wayzata, Minnesota, teamed up with seven other working parents (see tip No. 3), and in a single year, they built a Facebook group of more than 1,100 moms and dads who also wanted to see changes to the district’s cafeteria menu. Armed with all the feedback from concerned parents, Karla and her cohorts secured a meeting with the food-service director, business manager and superintendent. This meeting eventually led to having juice removed entirely from elementary school menus, and now chocolate milk is offered only on Fridays (instead of every day, twice a day, as it had been).

5. Send out a survey.

Want a quick, easy way to get a lot of feedback from parents at once? Do what Patricia Morales did and pass out surveys at school meetings. At her kids’ elementary school on Chicago’s southwest side, nearly 98 percent of the students are low income, and 94 percent of the student body is Latino. To get parents’ voices heard, Patricia worked with Healthy Schools Campaign and spearheaded a survey that asked for student demographics, as well as compliments, concerns and suggestions regarding school meals. With more than 200 returned surveys, “I shared the information at the school council, at school meetings and with other parents.” The feedback Patricia collected informed the new food-­service contract that began this past school year. Patricia’s district now offers fewer processed foods.

6. Put in a little bit of face time.

A demanding job and kids with their own hectic calendars make it seem impossible to carve out time to volunteer in the flesh. Marissa Costonis of Philadelphia started going into her child’s school for a few hours just one week out of every year. Among other things, she’d walk around the cafeteria with lots of unique vegetables (such as jicama, fennel and sunchokes). Students could hold and smell the foods in a pressure-free environment. She also worked with school staff to create a special item, such as smoothies, using the vegetable—and the kids liked it! After the success of her lunchtime efforts, Marissa started talking about special indoor gardens (called tower gardens), and how the school could use them to demonstrate the connection between what we grow and what we eat. “As a result of my efforts, the school filed for a grant to purchase two tower gardens so the students could watch vegetables and herbs grow throughout the year, and then taste them in their lunches,” she says.