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Join the school cafeteria revolution

'Do lunch,' learn the issues and see if you can assist food services.

American school lunches have steadily improved during the past 15 years, with less sodium, fat and sugar and with more whole grains, fruits and veggies. The healthy school lunch movement has galvanized First Lady Michelle Obama and high-profile chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Rachael Ray.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the percentage of schools in which children are not permitted to buy junk food is increasing, though junk food is still widely available. Here are some ways parents can getinvolved in promoting healthier food at their child’s school or district.

Check out what’s already going on.

“Do lunch” in your kid’s cafeteria. Everyone from lunch reformers to cafeteria managers says that reading weekly menus is no substitute for seeing, smelling and tasting the food — as well as checking out the ambience.

Make new friends.

Call your district’s food service director to see if there are programs in which you can assist. Some schools have youth advisory councils where a rep from each grade is invited to talk to classmates and seek suggestions about the cafeteria. Councils typically meet 4-6 times a year, seeking to integrate student ideas into the menu. Other schools have a wellness council, made up of school staff, students, parents and community members. Perhaps you can join it.

Say yes to tastings.

Kids love events with food. Hold a festival where parent volunteers offer new tastes from their cultural heritage. Or get students to cook up a class-related tasting. If their class is learning about France, try tasting new “un-American” cheeses.

For more ways to help your school's food program, check out School Meals that Rock on the web or on Facebook.

New federal school meal nutrition standards.

Learn about food service challenges.

In an ideal world, schools would serve more organic food, but most experts say that the current economic climate means that we need to set realistic goals. Request that your school serve more fresh fruits and veggies if they’re not frequently available. Ask if the cafeteria can use whole-grain bread products when possible.

Think strategically.

Keep your eyes on the nutrition prize. No school food is healthy if it’s not eaten. Take chocolate milk, for example. Due to concerns about childhood obesity, some schools only serve unflavored milk in their cafeteria. Research shows that without the option of flavored milk, milk consumption drops by as much as 60%. Milk’s nutrients are not easy or inexpensive to replace. New, reformulated nonfat versions of chocolate milk have less sugar and usually fewer than 20 calories more than a serving of unflavored milk.

Get growing.

Can you help your child’s school start, or expand, a school garden? Can you offer to set up seedlings on classroom window-sills? Can you help the school establish a relationship with a local farm? Chef Alice Waters, the founder of the U.S. fresh and local food movement, says, “When children grow food themselves, they want to eat it.”

Advocate play before lunch.

Studies have found that when recess was scheduled before lunch, students consumed significantly more food and nutrients than when recreation was after lunch.

Althea Zanecosky is a registered dietitian, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and nutrition communicator for the Mid Atlantic Dairy Association

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