School meals matter. Children consume as much as one-half of their daily calories at school. As a result, the food kids eat at school can either be an opportunity to encourage healthy eating behaviors and curb America’s childhood obesity epidemic, or can be a contributor to poor health and increased chronic disease risk.
Increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products as part of school meals can be an effective strategy to improve healthy eating behaviors among children. However, poorly regulated, often unhealthy foods are abundant in many schools and are offered in competition with school meals, which can undermine the positive effects of school nutrition programs. Federal nutrition guidelines for school meals exist, but meal quality can still vary widely from one school district to the next.
A variety of school nutrition programs are designed to encourage healthy eating among students, though not all are available in every school. Some of these programs include: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the Special Milk Program, Farm to School and School Garden Programs, and Team Nutrition. These school nutrition programs have been beneficial in increasing children’s access to nutritious meals and their awareness of the importance of healthy eating habits.
However, it’s not just about increasing the availability of heathy foods. Kids need to have an understanding of why eating nutritious food is important, what kinds of foods are nutritious, how to detect misleading marketing claims targeted toward them and where food comes from. Most schools include very little nutrition education in the classroom. This is an excellent opportunity to weave nutrition and cooking lessons into math, reading, science and critical thinking exercises. Schools can adopt a complete nutrition curriculum, or can create a school garden to help kids learn where foods come from, or start a composting program to learn about food waste and food system sustainability.
Don’t just assume kids will only be exposed to healthy foods at school. Remember that school nutrition goes beyond lunch too – after-school events, school fundraisers and class parties all play a role. The food kids consume at school can significantly impact not only their health, but also their ability to learn. Decreasing the availability of unhealthy foods and expanding nutrition programs to additional schools and school districts can greatly benefit the students, educators, and the community as a whole.
Ways to Get Involved
- Learn about school nutrition in your community.
- Ask if your child may be eligible for free or reduced – price school meals.
- Ask about the school’s nutrition priorities. Do they include nutrition education in the curriculum? Do they offer breakfast? What school nutrition programs exist in the surrounding districts that could be brought to your local school?
- Engage with other parents and join the PTA. Share what you’ve learned about school nutrition programs at school committee meetings.
- Advocate for salad bars, school gardens, and Farm to School programs at schools in your school district.
- Ask how special occasions at schools are celebrated. Gather parents and brainstorm ways to celebrate without food, or with healthier snacks.
- Encourage the PTA to find alternatives to school fundraisers that ask kids to sell food, candy and beverages, or encourage families to eat at a local fast food restaurant that will donate a portion of their proceeds to the school.
- Join the Whole Kids Foundation, Team Nutrition or the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. All are great resources to learn more about school nutrition and ways to get your child interested in healthy eating habits.
Sites to Visit to Learn More
Eat at school
How much do you know about the meals your child is served at school? Ask your child and their friends if they like their school meals and what they enjoy or would change about them. Check with the school to see if you can eat lunch with your child one day to see what it’s like for yourself.
Improve offerings in school vending machines
Find out if your local school district has a contract with a vending machine provider. If so, what is sold in the vending machines? Where do the profits go? Research methods schools have used to include healthier snacks, like flavored water and nuts, in vending machines. Bring these ideas to your next school district meeting, and see if a group can be put together to approach the vendor.
Find a healthier school fundraiser
Most of us remember the fundraisers that encourage kids and their families to eat at a certain local fast food restaurant that will donate a portion of profits to the school on specific days. Ask the school how much they made last year. Then get a group of parents together and approach local businesses not promoting unhealthy meals if they would be interested in a similar arrangement. Maybe the local grocery store or a restaurant with healthy meal options would be interested.