Want to banish junk food from your child's school? Follow this plan and you can help put your school on the path to smart nutrition.

Healthier school lunches Girl with tray of cafeteria food
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

From donuts at class parties to pizza in the cafeteria, the food your child gets at school can be seriously unhealthy. But what can you do about it?

Parents Advocating School Accountability (PASA), a volunteer-run research and information project, has created a 10-step guide to banishing junk food from schools. To set this plan in motion, all you need is a few committed volunteers. This project has no expenses so you don't need a budget, fundraising, or grants to get started.

1. Survey your community.

Make sure there is solid support for replacing junk food with healthier choices, especially from the principal! Parents, teachers and administrators should all be onboard before you approach school district personnel. Students are likely to offer initial resistance. Seek their input later when choosing new healthy menu items.

Tip: Parents, who are less vulnerable to political resistance than school administrators, can spearhead the proposal. If approaching one district department (the Student Nutrition Office, for example) doesn't succeed, take the proposal directly to the school board or the superintendent.

2. Form a committee.

This should include parents, administrators and teachers who will plan and implement the new food program. Much of this can be done by email (set up a group list and thread). Any parents working in healthcare or nutrition would be good candidates for this committee; science and PE teachers are usually excellent candidates as well.

Tip: The project can include hands-on learning for students. Science teachers can emphasize nutrition education. Math students can track sales. Art classes can create posters to promote new menu items. Include ideas like these in your proposal.

healthy school lunch
Credit: Paula Hible

3. Set goals and parameters.

What does your group view as junk food, and how will you define a healthy food? Establish guidelines for calories, serving size, and acceptable amounts of fat, sodium, sugar and chemical additives. How far will your guidelines extend? Just to food served in the cafeteria? Vending machines? Fund raisers? School events? Some schools allow extracurricular clubs to raise money selling snacks; will you expect those clubs to abide by your guidelines? Should teachers and staff refrain from consuming soda or junk food in view of their students?

Tip: Portion size is viewed as an increasing U.S. health problem. Consider emphasizing reasonable limits on sizes—a cup of milk, a slice of pizza.

4. Write up a proposal for a pilot program.

Detail your plans, including how long the pilot will run. The most likely objection to eliminating junk food is that sales revenue will drop ("We can't afford to!"). If you expect to collect data on sales, be sure to explain how. Write into your proposal a guarantee that the pilot operate for a set length of time (six months, say) regardless of the effect on sales. Although there may be an initial drop in revenues as students adjust to the new choices, the program needs to run long enough for students to make that adjustment. Schools that have committed to stick with healthier foods have found that these ultimately outsell the junk food.

Tip: Don't forget that students will purchase other items when they can't buy junk. Question claims that eliminating unhealthy items will eliminate the income from those sales. Income from healthier items is likely to offset the loss.

5. Submit the proposal to your school district.

Decide whether you want to first approach the Student Nutrition Office, the Superintendent's Office, or the Board of Education. The Board of Education is likely to be receptive, especially if you rally your community to attend a meeting and speak in favor of the proposal, but there can be some lag time between when your proposal is presented and when it is implemented. Going directly to Student Nutrition is probably the fastest route.

Tip: Make sure district departments are communicating. You may have to remind the Superintendent's Office to direct the Student Nutrition Office to work with you.

6. Seek student input.

Once your proposal is approved, survey the students about what healthy foods they would like offered. You will likely be working with the Student Nutrition Office, which may be able to arrange for tastings of new products. Most vendors welcome the opportunity to come into a school and hand out free samples to students. Keep track of student requests and of their evaluation of products. Finalize your list of new items to be offered for sale, and old ones to be discontinued.

Tip: Though eliminating junk is a firm decision made by the adults, emphasize to the students that their input is vital.

7. Implement the program.

Replacing everything at once will not go over well. A good place to start is with beverages. Sodas or other undesirable options can be replaced with water, milk and 100% fruit juice. Chips usually come from the same vendor as soda (Pepsi owns Frito-Lay, for example), so it makes sense to eliminate them at the same time. The next week, remove a few more items and introduce others. With entrees, be sure to introduce new ones before you eliminate the old ones. It is essential that students know what choices are available. Use the student newsletter, daily announcements and school bulletin boards to publicize the new foods. There should also be a daily-updated menu easily visible in the cafeteria, listing the day's choices.

Tip: The easiest way to get kids and parents familiar with daily specials, if you have them, is to stick to the same special on the same day each week—Wednesday could be pasta day, for example.

8. Track your sales weekly.

Are the kids drinking lots of juice? Maybe they would like additional flavors. Are some foods running out or going unsold? Make sure quantities are adjusted quickly, so that there is minimal waste. In comparing sales totals before and after the pilot program, make sure that other variables are controlled: the length of time the cafeteria is open, the amount of time students have to purchase and eat their lunch, and the number of serving lines all should remain the same so you can tell whether changes in sales revenue are due to the change in food.

Tip: If the data you are given does not reflect what you are observing yourself, look carefully for any inadvertent mistakes, such as data being incorrectly entered into the computer.

9. Evaluate how your program is going each week.

Are more kids having a "real" lunch, rather than chips and a soda? Have teachers noted changes in behavior since junk foods were eliminated? Talk to parents; are they seeing changed eating habits at home? Although what you're doing is in the best interests of the students, cafeteria workers who may be reluctant to change or may view your pilot program as a criticism. Purchasing, preparing and selling healthier food is more labor-intensive than handing over bags of chips and cans of soda.

Tip: Build a good relationship with the cafeteria staff and manager, and with district administrators who are working with you. Publicly thanking and praising them is vital.

10. Let the world know how things are going at your school.

If your program is a success, share your experience with others and tell them about your program.

Tip: If your program succeeds and you want to encourage other schools to follow suit, call your local newspaper and ask to speak to the education reporter, or send the reporter an email about it.

NOTE: This plan addresses the foods sold in snack bars or a la carte in cafeterias. Federally subsidized "lunch line" meals do meet federal nutrition guidelines, so this plan isn't designed to tackle those.

This article was adapted from the Parents Advocating School Accountability organization.

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