Parent Advocacy Toolkit
At CAF, we want to inspire, educate, and activate parents to advocate for better school food in their communities. This Parent Advocacy Toolkit is designed to guide you through school food advocacy in three clear steps: Get Educated, Get Organized, and Take Action.
1) Get Educated
Understanding School Food Infographic
CAF School Food Infographic Oct2016
Understanding school food in America can be dizzying. In this infographic, we break down the following topics in a way that is easy to digest:
Research, Articles, and Media
- Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) centers on improving school-food standards for fruit, vegetable, and whole-grain portions, while placing limits on sodium and fats. The legislation, which took effect in 2012, covers topics ranging from local wellness policies to school fundraiser concessions.
- United States Department of Agriculture
The USDA department of Food and Nutrition Services oversees the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Read their helpful FAQ sheets for a basic understanding of these programs, their backgrounds, and how they function:
- Hierarchy of School Food Decision Making
Decisions regarding school food range from the federal to the local level. The Center for Ecoliteracy created this outline, which clearly delineates the levels of authority and their responsibilities.
- State-by-State Statistics
The Food Research and Action Center created an interactive map showing each state’s statistics concerning child poverty rates, food insecurity, and participation in federal nutrition programs--including school lunch and breakfast–as well as the federal funding they receive to support those programs.
- School Food Equipment Status Report
The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Food Project, a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently completed a nationwide study of school kitchen equipment. The findings summarize the equipment and infrastructure needed by schools to prepare and serve fresh food. They also show how many schools are lacking necessary equipment and infrastructure.
- Smart Snacks Guidelines
Smart Snacks in Schools, another component of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, will be phased in during the 2014–15 school year. The USDA provides guidelines governing the nutritional quality of snacks and beverages sold in schools. Here are highlights of smart snacks guidelines from the USDA.
- Nutrition and Academic Performance
Food insecurity and childhood obesity affect too many of the 55 million school-aged children in this country. Improving school food is an important part of the solution. The benefits of well-fed and active children include better behavior, fewer absences, higher self-esteem, and increased academic performance. You can find a snapshot of statistics, along with case studies, at “The Learning Connection: What You Need to Know to Ensure your Kids are Healthy and Ready to Learn.”
- Universal School Breakfast
The number of schools offering breakfast--and the number of students eating it–grows every year, and an increasing number of districts are opting to offer breakfast to every child in the classroom. To learn about this important nutrition program, explore “Start the School Day Ready to Learn with Breakfast in the Classroom: Principals Share What Works” and ChildhoodObesity180’s “The Breakfast Effect.”
- U.S. News and World Report
Chef Ann Cooper, the founder and president of the Chef Ann Foundation, blogs about current legislative actions (and the lobbying efforts of big business) concerning school food.
- The Lunch Tray
Bettina Elias Siegel, a former lawyer who is now a parent of two children, covers an extensive assortment of topics related to children and food, including food policy, school food reform, and family dinner recipes.
- Food Politics
Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of What to Eat and Food Politics, writes about food justice and nutrition research.
- Fed Up With Lunch
Sara Wu, an elementary-school teacher, masqueraded as “Mrs. Q” as she blogged and tweeted about the school lunches she consumed over the course of an entire school year. She highlighted her journey in the book Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project.
- School Nutrition Association
The mission of the School Nutrition Association is to advance the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy. It’s also a lobbying force for school food change at the federal level. Their views don’t always match those held by CAF, but they offer an alternate perspective to school food solutions in their weekly “Tuesday Morning” policy and awareness newsletter.
- Berkeley Unified School District: A Case Study
The 2008 case study of Berkeley Unified School District’s school lunch program remains the beacon of in-depth studies of school food reform efforts at one school. Lunch Matters: How to Feed Our Children Better, the Story of the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative outlines the complexities and challenges of one school district’s successful efforts to change their school food program.
Alice Waters, founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Edible Schoolyard Program, teamed up with Chef Ann Cooper and the Center for Ecoliteracy to create the School Lunch Initiative, which helped transition the food at the Berkeley Unified School District to wholesome and scratch-cooked meals. The overhaul included the introduction of cooking classes, nutrition-based curricula, and school gardens.
- Oakland Unified School District: A Feasibility Study
The Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a feasibility study for Oakland Unified School District to determine the roadmap for comprehensive reform of their nutrition services. The study addresses the question of what needs to happen in order to overcome systemic injustice and improve student health and academic performance.
- Boulder Valley School District: A Study in Salad Bars
Colorado Farm to School published a white paper on Chef Ann Cooper's implementation of salad bar programs in all 54 schools by 2010. The paper provides a broad overview of funding and stocking the salad bars, with a special emphasis on local procurement.
- Breakfast in the Classroom: Two Case Studies
The School Nutrition Foundation, along with its four partners, conducted two case studies of Breakfast in the Classroom. The studies, funded through Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, focus on Memphis City Schools and the Dallas Independent School District.
Other school districts across the country have made significant changes to their food programs. While there are no case studies documenting these changes, the revised programs serve as models showing what other districts can accomplish, especially with the help of parent advocates:
- The Lunch Line
The Lunch Line blog regularly showcases school districts, food service directors, staff members, parents, and advocates who are creating school food change in their communities.
- The Mix
The Mix, which is the blog feature of Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, highlights Salad Bar Heroes who have successfully integrated salad-bar programs into their food service. Salad bars are a great way to ensure that every student has daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Locavore Public Schools
Bon appétit magazine highlights eight districts across the country that are incorporating locally produced food to improve their nutrition programs.
- USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS)
In 2005, the FNS published a paper about success stories at 32 different schools. Though the account is now almost a decade old, the actions that schools took remain relevant.
- School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention put together a report regarding the relevance of nutrition and physical activity in schools. The report includes nine guidelines to help schools establish policies and practices that will have a positive impact on students.
- The Effect of School Food on Childhood Health
This 2009 study (abstract is linked), titled “Nutritional quality of the diets of US public school children and the role of the school meal programs,” measured the nutritional quality of diets in 2,314 public school children and found a very strong association between the school lunch program and overall diet. Higher school lunch participation was associated with excessive sodium and saturated fat intake. The silver lining of this finding is that school lunch is changing to have a lasting positive impact on children’s health.
- Academic Impact of Improved School Nutrition
As part of his “Feed Me Better” campaign, Chef Jamie Oliver set up a natural experiment in the UK that demonstrated the significant positive effects of dietary changes on children. The study followed one school that implemented scratch-cooked meals and banned junk food. The result was an increased academic performance in English and science, as well as a decrease in authorized absences, which are usually associated with sickness.
- Academic Impact of Nutrition Education
This study measured sixth graders’ test scores before and after the implementation of a nutrition and physical education program (the EatFit program) at a school in California’s Central Valley. The follow-up test scores were significantly higher than the baseline scores, illustrating the positive effect of nutrition education on academic performance.
- Making the Case for Healthy, Freshly Prepared School Meals
The Center for Ecoliteracy gathered research from around the country to make the case for healthy, freshly prepared school meals. Discover research on health, academic achievement, and finances that provides you with important facts.
- Salad Bars in Schools
When asked what single thing schools can do to improve their nutrition programs, Chef Ann Cooper responded, “Get a salad bar.” The Gretchen Swanson Center for Education conducted an evaluation of the “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools” program to determine the effect of salad bars on the nutritional quality of school food and children’s eating habits.
- Healthier School Food is a Hit with Students
In 2012, schools started serving healthier school meals under the new USDA guidelines. At first, students complained, but a study from Bridging the Gap shows that, given some time, students grow to like the new, healthier meals.
Here is where you can access our Multimedia Content, including Chef Ann’s TED talks. And here are some insightful blogs, films, and websites to inspire school food reform:
Get to Know Your School (Let’s Do School Lunch!)
The first step to changing school food is to understand the current food served at your child’s school. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to “do lunch” with your child or children. This will give you a rapid understanding of many aspects of the school food program beyond the quality of the food. If your children are in different grades, it’s a good idea to eat with them all, as the menu and service at the higher grades will be very different from those in elementary school.
Keep your eyes open when you visit for lunch, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn all you can about different areas of the food service program. Use the suggestions below to guide your investigation.
- Cafeteria logistics:
- What is the process of getting food?
- What are the lunch lines like – long, or short? Do they move quickly, or slowly?
- Is there a salad bar?
- Do kids get to choose what they eat?
- Are healthier items placed in front of less healthy items?
- How much time does it take for your child to fill her lunch tray and find a seat?
- Dining atmosphere:
- How is the cafeteria designed?
- How loud is the room?
- Is it clean and bright?
- Is it a convivial atmosphere?
- What is the flatware and silverware like (paper and plastic, or real cups, plates, and cutlery?)
- Is everyone eating?
- Are the kids enjoying themselves?
- Are they focused on eating?
- The lunch period:
- How much time does your child have to eat?
- Is it sufficient?
- Can you finish your meal during the lunch period?
- Is lunch before or after recess? (Children tend to focus more on eating after recess.)
- Nutritional quality of the food:
- How much of the food is fresh and how much is processed?
- Is it scratch-cooked?
- Is it tasty?
- Is it healthy?
- Is dessert offered as part of the meal?
- Review the ingredients and nutritional information (ask a food service staff member for this information if it isn’t readily available online). How much sodium, fat, and sugar does the meal contain?
- Review the weekly menus. Is there a wide variety of options?
- Are there vegetarian options?
- Is fresh fruit and/or vegetables part of every meal?
- How often are less healthy options (like french fries and pizza) available?
- Are the food service staff friendly and available for questions?
- Are there lunchroom monitors or volunteers to help out in the dining area?
- Can students talk to adults about their food choices?
- Check out what products are being marketed to the children. Is it junk food?
- What foods are being promoted on posters around the entire school, not just the cafeteria?
- Competitive foods:
These are food items students can purchase that do not provide money to the school lunch program: a la carte items, vending machines, and school stores. Find out what other options kids have.
- What do the vending machines provide? Are they in use during lunch and breakfast hours? Is it easier to buy Cheetos than to stand in line for an apple?
- Does the school store sell food? Is it open during lunch and breakfast hours? Does it sell entrées that compete with the school food program? Are they healthy options?
- School breakfast:
- Does your school serve breakfast?
- Is it before the start of the regular school day, or is it “after the bell”?
- Is it served to all children or just to those who qualify for free and reduced-price breakfast?
- Is it served in the cafeteria or in the classroom?
- Other questions:
Some questions can’t be answered during your child’s lunch period and are better directed toward a school administrator and/or the food service director.
- How do you develop the menus?
- How have your menus changed to meet the recent USDA guidelines?
- How are the lunches at our school funded?
- Where is the food purchased?
- What’s your approach to fresh food and local sources?
- Is food preparation outsourced?
- Before you begin to reach out to others in the community, it’s important to determine your top priorities.
- Your approach will depend on what your priorities are. Some issues are school-based, and some are district-based. For example, the district-wide food service director cannot make decisions about the length of the school lunch period. If you are concerned about this issue, it makes more sense to talk to the school principal. If you would like to see more fresh vegetables or less fried food on the lunch trays, however, talking to your school principal may have little impact, as this is an issue under the food service director’s control. Keep in mind that most sustainable changes happen at the district level.
- Pick your battles. Smaller change leads to bigger change, and no school food service program can change all at once. Do you want to focus on local sourcing? School gardens? Ridding the school of junk-food marketing and vending machines? Nutrition education? Longer lunch periods? Ingredient transparency? Salad bars?
- Consider factors as you choose your priorities. Which changes will be easy to make? Which will have the most impact? Which will require significant organization and advocacy at a grassroots level?
- Once you have your priorities, be flexible. Know that they might change once you Get Organized and Take Action.
- The Child Nutrition Act requires all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program to write and utilize a wellness policy. This document covers everything from school menus to nutrition education programs to physical activity recommendations. Obtain a copy of your school district’s wellness policy and read through it.
- Understanding the district’s wellness priorities will allow you to find an opening for dialogue with key stakeholders, such as administrators or the school board. If you are familiar with the school district’s wellness priorities, you can find points where your goals intersect with theirs, and effectively integrate your passions and advocacy within that context.
- Establishing common ground will give you a better chance of engaging stakeholders. For example, if parents want schools to stop offering junk food in vending machines, they can dig into the wellness policy to find support for their position. The school wellness policy might explicitly state a similar goal (e.g., removing junk food from school), or it might state a goal of improving students’ eating habits. In either case, there is a shared vision. School Wellness Policies 101 offers some great information and suggestions about working with school wellness policies.
Finally, be aware that the district’s main school food priorities may not be outlined in a wellness policy. For example, the largest concern of many districts is a school food program that is budget neutral (i.e., doesn’t lose money) or makes a profit. If that’s the case, it’s best to frame your goals within the context of the district’s fiscal priorities. For example, one argument could be that better school food would mean increased student participation, which in turn would increase federal reimbursements. Remember to have evidence on hand to back up your claims!
- School Food Reform (helpful for wellness policy guide)
2) Get Organized
Identify Collaborators and Gather an Advocacy Group
Stakeholders in a school district extend beyond administrators, teachers, and students. Parents, community businesses, organizations, advocates, and taxpayers are all part of the school district. Parents are often the most invested in school district concerns, but every community member in the district has a voice, and various groups represent different perspectives.
Although the school board and administration answers to the community, they usually can’t act on every individual concern and request. Creating an advocacy group–that is, an organized body that includes members from different segments of the community–will definitely get the attention of the administration and board, as it represents the concerns of a broad cross section of the community.
Additionally, a group will have more skills, time, creativity, and plain old horsepower than a single individual. Many hands don’t just “make light the burden”–they also are more effective in bringing about change.
- Think about members of your community who have a vested interest in improved school food. You can handpick your group; it’s not necessary to make a public call for committee members. A committed group of five to ten people with a shared vision can be more effective than a larger group with competing priorities. The group can grow as efforts progress.
- Involving people from varied backgrounds will give you a broad range of knowledge and skill sets to help you take effective action.
- Who should be in the group? Here are some suggestions:
- Parents. Have you discussed your school district’s food with other parents? Has another parent been publicly vocal about wanting to create change? Is there a parent in your school community who has been a leader concerning other wellness issues? Parents are a great force for change in school communities, and having another parent on the committee can help galvanize the parent community.
- PTO/PTA. Does your school have an active PTO/PTA? If so, ask them for a representative who would like to serve as a member of your group and act as your ambassador to the larger parent community. PTO/PTAs can help you create and promote school events once you’re ready to do so.
- Teachers. Do you know of a teacher who incorporates nutrition education into classroom instruction, students in the school garden, or brings classes on field trips to a local farm? A teacher may have insight into the political structure of the school or district that parents may lack. A teacher will also be able to help guide a plan for educating students about school food changes and why they are important.
- School garden or community garden representative. If your school or community has a garden, a person who is actively involved in the garden may also be interested in improving the quality of school meals. Furthermore, a member of the school garden group will already have experience working with the administration.
- School board members. Is there a school board member who has expressed interest and/or concern regarding student wellness? A board member can be helpful in making school food part of the board agenda.
- School nurse. The school nurse has a vested interest in making students healthier, and can provide support and information regarding children’s nutritional health.
- Community advocates. Is there a nonprofit group in your area that is committed to childhood health and wellness? A representative from such a group can help access community resources that parents and school staff may not be aware of.
- Representatives of community businesses and corporations who share the mission of healthy food. Many businesses that produce and sell healthy food make it a priority to contribute to their community in some way. A representative from the business community can help the school district understand that healthy school food makes good economic sense. Representatives from larger corporations, such as Whole Foods Market, may provide access to volunteer resources and funding.
- Administration. It’s important to develop a positive working relationship with school and district administration. Does the school or district administration have someone who is primarily responsible for student wellness, or who has spearheaded change to improve school food or student wellness? Even if an administrator can’t be a part of the group, it is important to identify a person who can act as a liaison with the rest of the administration and communicate information from your group.
If the district already has a nutrition advisory committee or a wellness committee (such as a School Health or Student Health Advisory Council [SHAC]), work with them to see what they have accomplished, what their goals are, and how your group can align with theirs. An administration member should have a firm understanding of the district’s wellness policy, district priorities, and budget issues.
- Food Service Director (FSD). The FSD will be able to provide insight into existing school food resources, facilities, policies, and practices. The FSD can also inform you of past and current efforts to improve school food. It’s important to remember, however, that the FSD’s position is extremely demanding. He or she must address a spectrum of needs while being responsible for food service at all the district’s schools, and must also field questions and concerns from individuals throughout the district.
Many FSDs are under a lot of pressure to meet current guidelines even though they lack the necessary tools and resources for change. Others may feel that their program is doing the best it can to provide healthy food for students. Consequently, it’s important to begin your dialogue with the FSD by acknowledging their challenges, efforts, and accomplishments. Let the FSD know that your group hopes to be a source of support, not a source of criticism or added pressure. Work to understand each other’s concerns and perspectives so that when there are disagreements, you can address them in partnership.
Reach out to your FSD to let them know you’re organizing an advocacy group to support healthy school food, and invite him or her to the meetings. Let the FSD know that you will keep them informed of the group’s goals and activities even if they can’t join.
When reaching out to potential members of the group, different approaches will work better for different people. Your request to a member of the business community, for example, may not be the same as your request to a fellow parent because their interests lie in different areas. A business person might be interested in supporting local food producers, while a parent may be solely focused on nutrition. Before you approach any potential member, consider what you will say, taking their interests into account.
And remember, if someone says no, don’t give up on them. You can use the interaction as a foundation to build their support. End the discussion by asking if you can follow up with them, once your group has made some progress, to see if they can help.
A few more tips regarding reaching out:
- When talking to potential members, communicate your enthusiasm and inspiration. Share a few key data points that you’ve learned when doing your research (see Get Educated).
- Let potential members know why you are asking them, specifically, to join, and tell them why you think they are crucial to the group’s success. Discuss their interests, accomplishments in the community, and skill sets.
- Finally, be clear about expectations. Let potential members know that this is a working group, so everyone will need to contribute in some way to achieve the group’s goals.
Hold a Kick-Off Meeting
- Find a place and time to meet that is convenient for everyone in the group. It need not be at your school, though that is often the most logical location.
- If many group members have small children, recruit a teenage volunteer to provide child care during the meeting.
- Healthy refreshments featuring veggies or fresh fruit can help inspire the group and remind them why your work is important. Nothing costly or complicated is necessary—a bowl of seasonal fruit can do nicely. Here are some healthy Home Recipes.
- Email working documents to group members ahead of time and ask them to bring the documents with them. At minimum, you should send out a simple agenda. You can also include discussion points for agenda items, and maybe one or two links to articles or blog posts that you think would be good discussion starters. Be careful not to overwhelm group members with too many documents, though.
- Open the meeting with a ten-minute video that helps the group understand the state of school food, the power of grassroots advocacy, and the impact of even small changes. We recommend the following:
The Center For Ecoliteracy’s “Making the Case” (Video, PDF, and PowerPoint)
- Set a time limit and stick to it! Ninety minutes is often manageable. Meetings – especially evening ones – that go over this limit can experience diminishing returns. Set a time limit for each agenda item, too. (See sample agenda below for discussion topics.)
- Ask one member to be a timekeeper. This person will be responsible for making sure the meeting starts on time, reminding the group when they have five minutes and then two minutes left for each agenda item, and moving the meeting forward when it is time to discuss the next item.
- Ask another member to take notes. This person will also be responsible for typing up the notes after the meeting and distributing them to the group. It’s helpful to determine this role before the meeting convenes. The responsibility can rotate among the members.
- Stick to the agenda! If discussion veers from agenda items, make note of the new topic and relegate it as an agenda item for the next meeting. Then guide the discussion back to the agenda item at hand. Additionally, you can devote 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to an agenda item labeled “Other” to address issues that come up.
- Finally, though you are the group’s leader, you don’t have to do all the talking. Your role is to guide the discussion. If discussion wanes, don’t try to fill in dead air by making more points. Instead, ask questions, or ask a specific member of the group for his/her opinion.
Your kick-off meeting should have four objectives:
- To inspire the members of your advocacy group.
- To determine the mission and goals of the group.
- To establish the roles that members can take on (note: it’s important to be flexible regarding roles, especially with a small group; members may take on responsibilities as action items arise).
- To create next steps: each member should come away from the meeting with a feeling of investment and responsibility in the group and be excited to create change.
- An inspirational video or PowerPoint presentation (see #5 above)
- A way to screen your presentation (make sure to test out the technology before the meeting starts!)
- Print copies of any working documents for the meeting; at a minimum, have print copies of the agenda
- A white board, chalkboard, or poster-sized paper that you can tape to walls for brainstorming/discussion notes
- Healthy refreshments, if desired
Download a Sample Discussion Agenda to help your meeting run smoothly and efficiently.
Hold Regular Meetings
Tips for Holding Regular Meetings
- Keep the momentum going! Create a schedule for upcoming meetings and share it with the group so they can put the meetings on their calendars. Solicit feedback from the group regarding how often they can meet. Aim for bi-monthly meetings. Weekly meetings might be too demanding. Meeting only once a month may slow progress.
- Keep your eyes on your end goals, but create a strategy for achieving them by outlining smaller steps. For example, if one of your goals is to get a salad bar program in your schools, you could lay out the following tasks:
- Determine how often your schools serve fresh fruits and vegetables to students. Find out how the fruits and vegetables are served—are they placed on students’ trays, or can students choose them? Talking with the FSD can give insight into operational challenges regarding procurement of fresh produce, such as cost, storage limitations, or food waste.
- Research salad bar programs and gather evidence about the benefits. Find other schools’ innovative solutions to the challenges your FSD faces.
- Gather information about granting programs and other resources that help schools implement salad bar programs. Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools is a great place to start.
- Create a brief, straightforward presentation making the case for implementing a salad bar, including why it is important and what the benefits are.
- Request a meeting with school administration and/or the FSD. A formal request in writing can be more effective than an email or phone call.
- Make your presentation at the meeting.
- Follow up with key decision-makers.
- Once the new salad bar program is approved, create a communications plan to inform the school community about it, including parents, students, teachers, and custodians. You can work with the PTO/PTA and school staff to access communication channels.
- Create a parent volunteer program to help younger students learn how to use a salad bar in the first few weeks of its launch (etiquette and hygiene, taking only what they’ll eat, etc.)
- Spread the word about the success of the salad bar program through school newsletters.
- Create a step-by-step strategy like the one above for each of your goals. In your regular meetings, be sure to check on progress, troubleshoot obstacles, refresh inspiration, and move the strategy forward.
3) Take Action
Explore Programming Possibilities
In GET ORGANIZED, we discussed your initial meeting(s) with your group to determine your mission, goals and next steps. Now it’s time to take action! Your “next steps” are the actions that you’ve determined are necessary based on your goals, and that’s where you’ll want to focus your energy.
While it’s helpful to identify the challenges, problems, and obstacles that your district’s school food program faces, it’s even more helpful to offer possible solutions. Looking at success stories and models of school food change is a great way to begin exploring programming options. Every school district is different, though, and it’s a good idea to get a sense of how programming can work within your district’s specific operational models.
As you explore your options, remember that not all programming options are based in the food service program. Incorporating nutrition education, school gardens, and farm-to-school initiatives into the classroom curriculum and school culture can go a long way in creating demand for healthier food choices among the students.
The following list will give you an idea of the programming options you can consider as you determine the best direction for your district to take.
Note: Only school district administration can apply for these grants; parents are key to building awareness of them.
- Fact sheets, calculators, and other resources are available at The Lunch Box to help understand and communicate how and when universal, after-the-bell breakfast would be right for your school. Note: The current round of grants are available to Michigan school districts only.
- Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools (LMSB2S) is a program that grants salad bars to schools. Salad bars can be utilized as a reimbursable meal or as part of a reimbursable meal. The salad bar toolkit is specifically designed for parents who want to support the program, complete with a sample letter to the school district. Once your school receives a salad bar, there is a wealth of information to support its implementation in the cafeteria at The Lunch Box.
- Project Produce: Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grants provide schools with grants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables to be sampled as part of a nutrition education program. By incorporating samplings and tastings, schools can incorporate experiential learning and increase students’ exposure to delicious produce. Note: Project Produce grant proposals must include a nutrition education component.
- School Food Support Initiative is a deep dive into school food reform that helps motivated school districts transition to scratch cook operations. The 18 month technical assistance program includes a Director's workshop, on-site assessment and strategic planning, peer-to-peer collaboration, and equipment grants.
- 6th Grade Garden Lessons: The Edible School Yard has put together a collection of lesson plans focused on science and the humanities to bring the sixth-grade classroom into the garden.
- Cafeteria Activities: The Lunch Box provides activities and materials to encourage students to try new fruits and vegetables and to help them understand the role fresh produce plays in a healthy diet.
- Community Voices for Health: Another resource that helps middle-school teachers integrate nutrition education into the curriculum. They recommend designating a day or a week each month to focus on nutrition education.
- Cruciferous Crusaders: Research shows that kids need a little more nudging to eat leafy greens. This bundled lesson plan supports that mission.
- Food Friends: Targeted toward younger classrooms, Food Friends offers a classroom activity kit to introduce children to new, healthy foods and to expand their palates.
- Instructional Tools for a Sustainable Curriculum: The Center for Ecoliteracy offers several dowloadable instructional tools to teach students about the ecological impact of food production and consumption. Be sure to check their Mini Greenhouse Lesson (K-3), the Nourish Companion Guides (middle school), and the Food, Inc discussion guide (high school).
- Media Smart Youth: Free program materials devoted to educating kids age 11 through 13 about how their attitudes toward food and nutrition may be influenced by the media. Teaching kids early about how they’re being targeted by food advertisements is extremely important.
- Teaching Gardens Curriculum: The American Heart Association presents eleven lesson plans aimed at pre-K to fifth-grade students. These fun, educational, hands-on investigations explore nutritious fruits and vegetables in and out of the garden.
- USDA MyPlate: Grade levels K through 8 can utilize this educational resource, which is meant to be integrated into math, science, social studies, and English classes. Posters, handouts, and workbooks galore are available to you free on the site.
- USDA Farm to School: The USDA Farm to School program provides granting opportunities as well as helpful resources to work with local farms at your school.
- The Edible Schoolyard (ESY): Provides a network of edible education resources, programming, and lesson plans. Founded by school food innovator Alice Waters, ESY resources are grounded in school gardens, but extend to other avenues of nutrition education and programming in schools.
- USDA Grants: Help your school district understand the financial support that is available to them as they work to improve their school food program. Important to Know: Only school district administration can apply for these grants; parents are key to building awareness of them.
- Farm to School Grants: The USDA subsidizes programs that promote district partnerships with local and regional farmers, ranchers, and other food producers.
- Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program: This program helps subsidize schools’ efforts to add more fresh produce to their lunch menus.
- Team Nutrition Training Grants: This is a great resource for staff training as well as nutrition education.
Here is a list of resources for posters, flyers, letter templates, infographics, and more:
Connecting with District Decision-Makers and Key Influencers
Once you have your goals, action steps, and programming ideas, it’s time to present your findings to the decision-makers. It could be that representatives of the decision-making bodies are already a part of your group (e.g., representatives from the school administration or board), and can act as ambassadors. Even if this is the case, don’t count on your “in” to guarantee a receptive audience or approval. Be ready to respond to many different arguments as to why your ideas won’t work, and prepare answers to address them.
Ideally, key decision-makers have already been made aware of your group and the work you’ve been doing through your ongoing communication and data-gathering activities. They should be anticipating a request for a meeting or presentation.
Create a presentation that you can use and/or modify for different decision-making groups. A PowerPoint presentation can be ideal for communicating your group’s findings, goals, and recommendations clearly and concisely. The Center for Ecoliteracy’s guide for “Making the Case to School Leaders” may be helpful when putting together your presentation.
Make sure you understand the authority each decision-maker has, and be clear about what you would like them to do. Let them know that you understand the policies and procedures surrounding the decision-making process at all levels.
- Food service director (FSD): If the FSD has not been involved with your advocacy group, set up a meeting with them and present your findings, goals, and programming ideas. Invite their input and guidance before you ask for a meeting with school administration. Keep in mind that this can be a sensitive topic for the FSD. Take the time to find points of agreement on priorities and ways to move forward. This will both avoid later conflicts and ensure that your group and the FSD are on the same page when you go to the administration. It’s a good idea to invite the FSD to your meeting with the administration.
- Existing committees for student health and wellness (e.g., the Student Health Advisory Council or SHAC): An existing committee may already have school food in their purview and a set role in the administration. They may also have a relationship with the school board and may be able to help you develop a strategy for working with the school board. Set up a meeting with them and make your presentation. Ask for guidance regarding moving change forward.
- School district administrators (especially the school superintendent and the assistant superintendent of finance): Set up a meeting with the administration and present your findings and recommendations. Let them know that you’ve met with the FSD. If there are areas where your team and the FSD disagree, be sure to let the administration know and look to them for support and guidance in resolving disagreements.
- School board: Get to know your school board and their priorities. Find places where your goals intersect with theirs. Try to find a champion who can help arrange a presentation to the board. During your presentation, be clear about what you would like the board to do, and be sure to involve a member of the administration when you present your case to the board.
- PTO/PTA: While the PTO/PTA does not have the authority to make school policy changes, they are instrumental in gathering the community support needed to make such changes successful. You may want to modify your presentation to the PTO/PTA to address parents’ concerns, as these will not be the same as those of the administration and board. Again, be clear regarding what you are asking of the PTO/PTA. Do you want to use their communication channels to educate parents about the school food changes you are requesting? Let them know.
Be ready for arguments against your ideas. You should be prepared to offer responses that address issues which are important to the decision-makers – and remember that this may not be what you find important. For example, if the assistant superintendent for finance says that the school depends on the money generated from junk-food sales, an argument about children’s health may not be persuasive. Instead discuss the fiscal benefits of healthier school food. For examples of common arguments and responses, see below.
- Argument: The school food program lacks the money and/or resources to make any changes, to get rid of junk food sales, to incorporate fresh fruit, to buy more equipment, etc.
- Response: There are grants available from CAF, the USDA, and other non-governmental organizations that can help fund healthier school food, like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant and salad bar equipment grants.
- Response: While participation in a healthier school food program may go down initially, studies show that, given time, participation in school food programs goes up when the quality of food improves, which will increase revenue from the school food program.
- Response: Funding school programs through junk-food sales is counterproductive. Encouraging kids to develop poor eating habits adversely affects their academic performance, physical health, and development. School stores, vending machines, and group/athletic fundraisers can switch to healthy snacks, or they can sell fun items that promote school spirit, like t-shirts, pom-poms, and wristbands.
- Argument: Kids don’t want to eat healthier food, so participation will go down and food waste will go up if we incorporate healthy food into the menus.
- Response: This peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that elementary-school students respond positively to healthier lunches.
- Response: Studies show that while there is usually an initial drop in participation following a change in menus, it goes up again over time when the quality of food improves.
- Argument: Schools can’t affect a child’s eating habits if they’re eating junk outside of school.
- Response: School is the place where children learn not just math, science, reading and writing, but also social norms, relationship building, health and hygiene–and, yes, eating habits, whether they are good or bad. The cafeteria is a classroom; if they are served pizza every day, they’ll learn that it’s okay to eat pizza every day. When children eat healthy food at school, they bring their knowledge home; it will also influence their choices when they buy food on their own.
- Argument: The school food facilities aren’t equipped to handle changes.
- Response: Some school food changes don’t require renovation. Things like placing healthier options in front of less-healthy options on the lunch line, or purchasing healthier options of the same food items, are easy to implement. For example, school food staff can place unflavored milk within hand’s reach and chocolate milk further away (or better yet, get rid of chocolate milk altogether). Or the school could serve pizza with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese.
- Argument: Salad bars or breakfast-in-the-classroom [BIC] programs aren’t sanitary.
- Response: Thousands of schools across the country have shown that even kindergarteners can learn basic salad bar hygiene practices, such as only handling the food with tongs, with some initial guidance from school food staff and volunteers. Sneeze guards have also proved effective in ensuring sanitation. Furthermore, if the salad bar is positioned in front of the cashier, he or she can keep an eye on any sanitation issues.
- Response: Sanitation practices can be built into BIC, and students can help by removing the trash or wiping down their desks after eating.
- Argument: Nutrition education activities, school gardens, and BIC take away from learning time.
- Response: Nutrition education, school gardens, and BIC can be incorporated into math, science, social science, and language-arts lesson plans and the core curriculum. (See Educational Curriculum above for ways to integrate academic learning with food literacy.) Many school superintendents have issued memos declaring that breakfast in the classroom can be incorporated into instructional time.
- Argument: Everyone expects school food to be bad. Parents who are concerned should pack lunches for their kids instead.
- Response: The National School Lunch Program was established to ensure that every school child in this country has access to a healthy, nutritious meal each school day. Approximately 70% of children who eat school lunch qualify for free and reduced-price meals; this means that their access to healthy food isn’t guaranteed. At its heart, school lunch is a social justice issue. Not all families have the ability to pack a healthy school lunch every day for their children. One-third of our country’s children are overweight or obese, and another third face food insecurity. To dismiss school lunch as unimportant is to give complicit approval of the epidemic of malnutrition in our country, especially among children in lower socioeconomic groups.
Even with clear presentations, research, and evidence, it may be difficult for the decision-makers to hear what you are saying. Sometimes an outside expert can help you make your case. In other instances, an external assessment of your school food program may be the next logical step to support your plans for change. The district may be able to allocate some funds for a professional consultant, or your group may raise the money to fund it.
Lunch Lessons, LLC, a school food systems consulting group operated by Chefs Ann Cooper and Beth Collins, provides assessment services for school districts.
Request a District Meeting
A district-wide meeting will be your rallying call to the community. You’ve done your research, determined your priorities, figured out the strategies and action steps, explored programming possibilities, and engaged all your stakeholders and decision-makers. It’s time to go public with your work and educate and inspire the greater community. Here are some things to think about when planning your district-wide meeting:
- Request a meeting at which to make a presentation to the whole district. This request will go to either administration or the school board. The public presentation may take place during a school board meeting.
- Invite the FSD and a representative from the school administration to be a part of the meeting, and give them active roles. The administration and/or the school board may mandate the presence of certain representatives.
- If the public presentation is not a school board meeting, work with the administration to book your meeting space well in advance. A school cafeteria is a great place to hold a meeting about school food, but an auditorium will work well, too.
- Use multiple media and communications vehicles to let the community know about the meeting. Possible outlets include:
- District-wide newsletters (especially valuable if they go out to all households in the community, not just those with school-aged children)
- PTO/PTA newsletters
- School announcements that go home with students
- Media alerts to local newspapers, radio stations, and television news stations
- Flyers and posters in schools, community businesses, and community centers
- Consider offering healthy refreshments and childcare in order to increase attendance. Make sure your communications to the public include the fact that both will be available.
- Invite the school board, administrators, teachers, school staff, students, all district residents, and representatives from local government and municipalities.
- Create an agenda for the meeting and determine who will speak, when they will speak, how long they can talk, and what they will say. This may be abbreviated if your presentation is part of a school board meeting. Here is a sample agenda:
- Welcome and introductions (10 minutes)
- School administrator/FSD speak (5 minutes)
- Introductory video (10 minutes)
- Group presentation (15 minutes)
- Call to action (5 minutes)
- Q&A (15 minutes)
- Plan for 60 minutes at most, and make sure to include at least 15 minutes at the end for Q&A and discussion.
- Vary the speakers. It’s hard for an audience to maintain focus when one person talks the whole time.
- If the FSD and/or an administrator attend, make sure you provide them with the option to speak.
- Include a variation of your PowerPoint presentation that you’ve adapted for your audience. Remember that for some folks, school food may be an entirely new topic.
- Include your group’s goals and next steps. If the administration or the school board has already approved changes, make sure to mention that fact.
- Also include ways that attendees can get involved – give them a call to action. You can ask people to serve as liaisons for individual schools (ideally, there would be a liaison at every school in the district) or as subcommittee members of your advocacy group. Subcommittees can be charged with accomplishing a certain set of action steps, such as creating a cafeteria volunteer program.
- Follow-up after the district meeting – think ahead about what you’ll do if the meeting goes well, as well as what your options are if it goes poorly.
If the meeting doesn’t turn out as you had hoped, have your group brainstorm creative ways to increase awareness of school nutrition and to bring more attention to ways to improve your district’s school-food program. If your meeting had a positive outcome, focus on moving the decision-making forward.
Next steps will vary depending on your progress. For some groups, it may be a question of following up with administration to ensure action. For others that may have hit a few dead ends, they may focus on raising awareness instead of advocating for change. Next steps can include petitions or awareness events and including the media. The important thing is to maintain momentum and forward movement. And be sure to check back to our Programs and Our Grants pages for new school program opportunities.
Change happens slowly. It may seem that nothing is changing despite all your efforts. But change is happening. The community is paying attention. School staff and administration will take action. Because of you.
Extra Credit: Tools for Home
Healthy Recipes for Kids
One of the best ways to ensure that your kids are eating well at school is by teaching and reinforcing healthy eating habits at home. In the Home recipes section of our site, we have nearly 100 healthy, kid-approved recipes from Chef Ann’s book Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.
These delicious breakfast, lunch, and snack recipes include a wide variety of vegetables, grains, proteins, and fruits. Trying out new recipes at home is a great way to get kids excited about trying new menu items at school.
Healthy Kids Meal Wheel
Chef Ann’s Healthy Kids Meal Wheel is an excellent tool to hang on your fridge (it hangs in the Smithsonian too). This colorful visual guide reminds kids how to balance their food choices each day according to the following categories:
- Whole grains
- Lean protein
- Healthy fats
- Red meats
- Added sugars and fats
Healthy Kids Nutrition Report Card
Healthy Kids Nutrition Report Card
Once your child has a good understanding of the Healthy Kids Meal Wheel, challenge them to record their food choices for the day to see how well they actually ate. This is a great exercise to do more than once so that you and your child can track their improvement over time.
Total Daily Nutrient Needs
Total Daily Nutrient Needs - English
Feeding Growing Kids
This information is especially important for parents to be aware of as their children grow. First, we provide the different daily calorie needs for kids based on age, activity level, and gender. Then we go over the recommended amounts of food groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, calcium, protein, fats, red meat, and added sugars) for the following age ranges:
- 2-5 years
- 6-9 years
- 10-13 years
- 14-18 years