Chez Panisse, Le Cirque, or high school cafeteria? Most of us don’t expect schools to provide gourmet fare, but we’d like our kids to have access to nutritious meals. Unfortunately, healthy food isn’t always on the school menu. When the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine released its annual School Lunch Report Card in August, it found some public school cafeterias serving foot long hot dogs and “colossal burgers!”


If you’re curious about what’s on the menu at your child’s school, ask! Many schools now display the upcoming month’s menu online. If yours doesn’t, call the Foodservice Director or stop by for a bite. “A healthy menu would emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of low-fat vegetarian entrée options,” says Dulcie Ward, RD, Consultant Dietician for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. In fact, federal law requires that school lunches meet nutrition guidelines. If yours doesn’t – or if the healthy entrée is overshadowed by unhealthy side dishes, high-calorie drinks, and junk-filled vending machines – there are steps you can take.


  • If speaking to the Foodservice Director on your own doesn’t work, Ward suggests gathering a group of concerned parents and scheduling a formal meeting with administrators. Come armed with examples from the menu as well as concrete ideas for what you’d like to see changed.


  • The School Nutrition Association recommends joining the school board or starting a letter writing campaign to make your voice heard.


  • Although there are national standards governing what can and can’t be served as part of the official school lunch, “competitive foods” – i.e. the snacks sold in vending machines, the pizza at football practice, and the chocolates at the swim team’s fundraiser – aren’t covered. If your child is guzzling sodas and chips at school, speak out. More and more cities are passing rules making schools junk-free zones.


  • If all else fails, take the time to pack lunch for your child. But follow healthy guidelines; according to the School Nutrition Association, the average brown bag lunch is less nutritious than most school lunches.


  • Speak to your child. The healthiest offerings in the world will go to waste if students buy junk at a convenience store instead of eating at school. Remind your child that eating at school saves them money and time.


  • Pat yourself on the back, even if your burger-loving child doesn’t thank you for your efforts. Look at your advocacy as an investment in your child’s future. “If kids are never offered healthful foods, they are never going to eat them,” says Ward. “The more exposure kids have, the more likely they are to choose healthful options.”


Further Reading: The Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine’s take The School Nutrition Association’s website