A panel discussion titled “This is Our Food Future: Kids, Cooking and Health” I attended at the BlogHer ’11 conference in San Diego last month quickly turned into a session on how to fight for better school food. A single mission connected the 200 or so foodies and mom bloggers in the room: to change the way our kids are fed in school. The vibe was empowering. The panelists on stage – all bloggers themselves – were Elaine Wu from BlogHer, Diana Johnson of Dianasaur Dishes, Laura Sampson of Hey, What’s For Dinner Mom and the infamous Mrs. Q with her blog Fed Up With Lunch.
Who’s Mrs. Q? That’s her undercover alias. At the conference, she was disguised with a wig, and no one was to take photographs of her. She is the teacher and mom who ate school lunch for the entire calendar year of 2010. She blogged about it anonymously, took photos of the meals and has her book – Fed Up With Lunch – coming out in October. That’s when we will find out her real identity as well as which school she works at. Like so many of us parents, Mrs. Q was upset by the quality of the food being offered at her school’s cafeteria but didn’t know what to do to make a difference. “Complain? That would have gotten me nowhere,” she said. A feeling millions of moms of school age kids can relate to…
What can parents do to give rise to change in America’s school cafeterias?
The movement to improve school lunch is fueled by parents’ awareness that convenience and tight budgets dictate school lunch menus – not nutrition. Mrs. Q quickly admitted, only an adult who has no clue about nutrition could come up with the “crazy idea” to eat what the school kids eat every day for a year, as she did. “Now, all I think about is food. I think food is everything… It’s all I have to fuel my body. I’m scared for me. But I’m scared for the kids that we need to defend,” the teacher said.
Definitely, there are successful examples for parents achieving policy changes together. Sampson was recently involved in the start of a charter school that wrote into their policies that there will be no processed foods in the school. A mom blogger in the audience reported, her daughter’s charter school received a grant from Whole Foods to get a salad bar for the school. “It’s something the parents were directly involved in making happen. It’s important. The school wasn’t going to do it on their own. We have gardens at the school and chickens, but the school doesn’t have the resources to do it.”
As this mom’s story shows, parents have to be kids’ advocates for school lunches to make a difference. The fist step has to be to connect as a community and decide you are going to change something, says Sampson. “We opted out of the school lunch program because it was so obscene. I live in the agricultural center of Alaska. Yet we import everything for our school lunch program. We don’t use local milk, don’t use beef or potatoes or anything that is locally made.”
Many families around the country are in a situation where they are already eating pretty healthy at home, but the school lunches are terrible. Johnson helps moms realize that as the parents they do have the power to get the school district to listen. “When the parents band together and say, this is what we want to see happen for our kids, they can really make a difference. Now one of the schools in my area has its own orchard and garden for growing food for their lunches.”
Pick one issue and attack it
Mrs. Q added, “Parents really underestimate how much power they have in the school setting. The principle absolutely is very affected by parental pressure.” She suggests you work with the PTA. Another piece of advice this teacher-turned-school-food-activist has is to pick just one issue, attack it and celebrate every step, so your group doesn’t feel defeated if you can’t change everything; because you won’t. “You can change one thing. Don’t feel like you have to attack the whole system,” Mrs. Q said. You want to establish a relationship between a group of parents and an entity in the school system, like the nutrition department or the principal. Use social media to evangelize and form a group. The panelists also encouraged parents to build a community with local farmers. “They need the business. And it builds your community,” Sampson said.
Adds the persuasive mom blogger from Alaska: “It never hurts to attend your school district meetings and speak to your school board. They have to be elected. And they need to make the parents happy to get reelected.” She rallied 300 parents and flash-mobbed a school board meeting to get her charter passed, and they “sailed through.” All panelists agreed: Election seasons can be very beneficial.
It’s not just a meal. It’s an education
Another blogger from the audience stepped up to the microphone to tell her story. “I got a job in the cafeteria at my kids’ school. And I was appalled by the food,” the mom of six began. The avid home cook’s suggestions had been met with rejection from the cafeteria manager, who said parents wouldn’t care. “When I kept badgering her, the final reply was: It’s only one meal a day.” Astonished gasps went through the room… It’s just one meal? “Now my kids don’t buy school lunch, because I know what’s in that food. And I don’t care if it’s one meal a day or a month. I don’t want that crap in my kids’ bodies,” said the mom. Mrs. Q responded: “Actually we don’t know what’s in that food. We know it’s a paragraph of ingredients, some of which have been created in a lab.”
For some children, that one meal a day at school is the only warm meal they get. “180 school lunches in a year is not moderation. And multiply that over 12 years of school. It’s not just a meal. It’s an education,” Mrs. Q said.
Ideas for school lunch improvements parents can fight for:
- Salad bar
- Allowing school communities to use federal food money to buy local, fresh, real foods from local farmers to make school lunches, in place of ultra-processed, mass-produced products shipped thousands of miles across the country
- Ban foods with harmful additives and questionable ingredients (chicken paddies could be a suspicious candidate)
- Give kids more time to eat their lunch
- Ban flavored milk.
We want to year from parents, what is the one issue you did or would pick to fight for? Please share in the comment section.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation offers The Healthy Schools Program, a multistep program that addresses everything from school lunches to teacher wellness.