What You Can Do to Improve School Food

By Larissa Phillips

Are you disturbed by the food your child is encountering in school? Whether you want to join in the national movement to overhaul the school lunch program, or just make sure your kindergartener doesn't come home with a newfound taste for orange cheez-puffs and chocolate milk, there are many things you can do. Here are 10 ideas to get you started:

1. Get together! Two voices are louder than one, and thousands of voices can make a difference. As of September 2006, every public school in the United States is required to have a Wellness Committee. Join yours, or if your school does not have one, start one. Speak to or email the school principal. Invite teachers, the school nurse, the school nutritionist and other parents. At the first meeting, share information about yourselves, and set long-term and short-term goals. If this is overwhelming, start small: just you and a few parents.

2. Hand out a recommended snack list. In the younger grades, many teachers ask parents to bring in the kids' daily snacks. Even the most well-intentioned parents can get a little panicked at the idea of feeding 25 kids - and they end up heading down the worst aisle in the supermarket. Make a list of suggestions (and nearby stores to buy them) and circulate it at the beginning of every year, or more often. School is a place of learning. It is an excellent place to introduce cherry tomatoes, snap peas, edamame, hummus and the like.

3. Start a newsletter. A page of recipes, nutritional information and pictures of kids eating good food can go a long way. Find some writers who like to eat (not as hard as you might think!) and see if they can help work on this with you.

4. Start a "Favorite Healthy Snack Day." Suggest to your child's teacher that parents take turns coming in and sharing their child's favorite healthy snack. Most kids have at least one healthy thing they like. Why not share it?

5. Celebrate regional produce. I live in the state that produces possibly the best apples in the world. When I go apple picking in the fall, I bring back an extra bushel for my kids' classes. Depending on the age of the children and the willingness of the teacher, you can do juicing events, make taste charts, paint pictures of them, do blind taste-testings, make apple muffins or apple pancakes, or just eat the darn things. One of my son's teachers was even OK with our leaving a bushel of apples in the classroom for kids to snack on throughout the day. Celebrate your local food harvest!

6. Cut down on chocolate milk. In some states, the chocolate milk option is up to the principal. Unfortunately, chocolate milk is a big issue. Many people think it is worth the high-fructose corn syrup to get kids to drink milk. Others disagree. Some schools have compromised by having chocolate milk only on Fridays.

7. Get kids gardening. Studies have shown that when kids grow their own food, they are more likely to eat the vegetables they've grown. Get a plot in a community garden for your child's class, ask for a field trip to the farmers' market, start a container garden, grow herbs in a sunny classroom window (then cook something with the herbs), or just grow avocado plants or lemon plants from pits and seeds.

8. Compost. Worm composts are well suited for classrooms; plus they help explain the cycle of life, and can open up avenues for studying recycling. Contact a local botanical garden or conservation society to help you find a nearby resource to get you started.

9. Cook! Make a habit of coming into your child's class and making food. Even simple things are exciting and will give kids ownership of the idea of preparing their own food from scratch.

10. Complain to your representatives. Tell them that you support legislation to get junk food out of the schools, and fresh, local foods in. Also let them know you support small farms, local farmers' markets and sustainable agriculture.

For more information or ideas, or to share school food success stories, email me at