Becoming A School Food Reformer

Becoming A School Food Reformer

Thu 01 Mar 2012

Story by Nancy Huehnergarth

In 2001, I walked into my children’s school cafeteria to get water and exited as a school food reformer.

Appalled by the chips, candy, soda and other junk tempting kids in the seven vending machines lining the walls, I formed a local coalition to advocate for healthier food in school.

I’ll be brutally honest. It was an uphill battle. Defensive school administrators inexplicably pegged our coalition as “macrobiotic wackos,” even though we presented a well-researched position paper and made moderate suggestions for change. In spite of the unfair type-casting, we were able to get a district-wide wellness committee formed. And we had the ear of our food service director.

But after three years of unfulfilled promises and little change, I wrote a blunt letter to the district about our lack of progress. I was promptly “fired” from the wellness committee by the superintendent. So I went to the New York Times and succeeded in getting them to write an article about school lunch reform that focused on our district. And I formed a statewide coalition dedicated to improving policies and practices that promote healthy eating and physical activity, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA).

That was the beginning of both measurable progress in our school district and a new career path for me.

Top 6 Tips

Based on my experiences, here are my suggestions for all those working to improve school food:

1. Form a district-wide coalition – To advocate for better school food, you need to show that many people want the same changes. Forming a coalition is as easy as getting the email addresses of supporters or creating a Facebook page. You can send out “Action Alerts” at key times, requesting that coalition members send supportive emails or attend a school board meeting.

2. Make reasonable suggestions for change – You can’t go from junk food to organic food in one fell swoop. Make reasonable suggestions for improving school food, creating both short and long-term goals. For example, make your first goal improving the offerings in vending machines. Then move on to improving cafeteria offerings and finally tackle policies for school parties, fundraising and food rewards.

3. Find an inside “champion” – If you are lucky, you will find a school administrator or board member who supports school food reform. An inside ally is key to getting changes made. If you can’t find a champion, and you are getting nowhere fast…

4. Speak to the local media – When you are being ignored for too long, it’s time to talk to the media. Contact your local newspaper or TV station and explain what your coalition is trying to do and how you are being thwarted. Don’t trash your district. Using terms like “hasn’t been a priority” or “may not realize the health implications” are less-threatening ways of making your point. Administrators take quick notice of media mentions so this will likely spur change.

5. Be very patient – Many of us, myself included, naively assumed we’d present the facts and the school district would take action. But change is a long, incremental process. And food change is particularly challenging because food is an emotional issue for many people.

6. Celebrate your wins, big and small – Pat yourself and your coalition members on the back frequently as you inch forward. It’s a long process to improve the food in your school district but you are slowly making a difference!

About the author: Nancy Huehnergarth is a food and fitness policy consultant and the executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA). She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, Nils and two daughters (image, bottom right).


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