Know Your School District
To succeed as an advocate for change, it's important to know as much as possible about your school district's meal program, its policies related to food, nutrition, and student health, and its nutrition curriculum. Program, policy, and curriculum should complement one another to ensure that students receive a consistent, health-supportive message. The following sets of questions will guide your research; we recommend recording your answers for future reference.
Experience School Meals
To get to know the school's meal programs, eat lunch with your child several times and observe. (To avoid embarrassing your middle school or high school child, you may need to do this when he or she is not at lunch!) Read the menu before your visit, keeping the following questions in mind while in the cafeteria. Record your answers. Remember to document what's going well along with what needs improvement.
On the lunch line
- Does the food being served match what is listed on the menu?
- Is the food presented in an attractive and appetizing manner? If yes or no, describe what you see.
- What does the food look like?
- Does the produce look fresh?
- Is it cut up and easy to eat?
- Is there variety?
- Is it well prepared?
- Do the children line up and get their lunch in an orderly and efficient way?
- How is the lunch line set up?
- Where are the healthy options placed in relation to the unhealthy options?
- Which are more accessible to the students?
- Does the kitchen staff encourage children to take healthy options?
- Is it easy for younger children to access all the food?
- What is put on the tray and what do the children have to get themselves?
- Is the milk cold?
- Do the children take all of the food offered? Do they take the fruit and vegetables?
Eating the meal
- Is the lunch period the same length as mandated in the district's policy?
- Do the children have enough time to eat?
- Does the staff encourage the children to eat? If so, in what way?
- Do the children actually eat what they take or is a lot thrown away (i.e. "plate waste")?
- Is there easy access to free water?
- Is the cafeteria atmosphere conducive to enjoying the meal?
- Are the tables and the lunchroom clean and tidy?
- Is the lunchroom chaotic or well run?
- Can the children socialize or are they told to keep quiet?
- Are there posters or promotional materials that encourage healthy eating?
Learn How the Food Services Department Operates
- Who oversees the Food Services Department?
- Is your the Food Services Department self-operating or contracted out to a food service company
- What is the budget?
- Is it available online?
- Is it presented at a specific time of year? When?
- What are the Board of Education's policies addressing foods sold and/or served in school?
- Are there nutrition labels/ingredient lists available?
- Does the menu clearly explain what is being offered on a given day, or are certain entrees named in a way that doesn't reflect the ingredients (e.g. "confetti salad")?
- Where can you find the menu?
- Does your district prepare from scratch any of its menu offerings?
- Where else in the school is food available for sale during the school day, and who collects the revenue from the sales?
- Vending machines
- School stores
- What is the participation rate, i.e. what percentage of students are buying the school meals?
Take Your District's Temperature
The following questions will help you gauge the interest and support of others in your community who want to improve school food.
- Who is interested in health and wellness issues in general, and school food in particular?
- School nurses
- Community organizations
- Board of Education members
- Does there appear to be no interest at all? In the past, what has been the level of cooperation between school administrators and parents?
- What channels are available to access information about school food or to participate in the discussion?
- District-level or individual school committees that address nutrition/wellness
- PTA/PTO, school staff, or a combination of both
- Which issues may be easier to tackle and have a better chance of being changed? See Prioritize Your Goals to help answer this question.
- In which programs is your school involved?
- National School Lunch Program
- School Breakfast Program
- Department of Defense produce
- For Connecticut parents: Connecticut Healthy Food Certification
- What elements of the wellness policy support healthy school food initiatives?