Eleven years ago, my family moved to the mecca of natural foods, outdoor adventure and alternative medicine: Boulder, Colorado.
When my kindergartener asked me to have lunch with her at school, I was excited to join her and see what was being served. That's when my initial expectations were shattered. Lunch was a nutrient-deprived serving of processed French toast sticks, a packet of maple syrup with no real syrup in it and a side of canned pears in a syrupy sauce. I wondered how a teacher could possibly teach nearly 30 kids after a sugar-packed lunch like that.
Wanting to take action, I found a small group of community members who had been meeting to try and implement changes to improve school food. A fellow parent activist took me under her wing. She introduced me to the group, inducted me into the committee and tried to show me how diplomacy, instead of outrage, was a more effective approach.
Today at Boulder Valley School District, my kids get to eat scratch-cooked meals made with the best possible ingredients. In every school in the district, they have access to salad bars with homemade dressing. Of course, I could have just packed lunch for my children, but now I know that our entire school community has access to this food.
In 2013, I quit my job at Whole Foods to lead a small nonprofit called the Chef Ann Foundation that was started to help provide school food service teams with the tools, resources and funding they need to move from heat-and-serve, processed food to a cook-from-scratch program.
Four years later, I'm still here and still incredibly passionate about school food reform. CAF works with schools across the country in every state, and one thing I have learned is that Boulder was not the only town with bad school food and an active parent community looking to change that.
Through my personal experience and in talking with other parents, I learned about how parents can successfully interact with school districts to ensure students are served healthy food. For other parents who want to be proactive, here are some things you can do to encourage school districts to give all kids access to healthier school food:
Get educated. It's important that parents understand what schools are up against when it comes to making changes regarding the food that's served to students. Schools face a host of challenges related to mass food production, U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and a lack of funding -- based on the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches -- that restrict what they're able to do.
It also helps if you have done your research on the particular food in your district. What kind of food are schools serving? What's being done to ensure kids have access to healthy fare?
Get organized. If a school district is getting loads of individual requests and complaints that are not aligned, then it's hard for them to work toward a solution. Organize a group of concerned community members. Hold meetings and determine what your requests are. Do you want to remove processed food? Do you want your district to consider salad bars? Do you want schools to remove flavored milk? Make your list, research your requests and present a united front.
Take action. Once you've organized your committee and made a unanimous decision about your primary concerns, it's time to find your advocates. Your cause will benefit from finding someone on the school board or in the district administration that is interested in the kind of reform your group is requesting. So put your feelers out. Once you have your advocacy group together, it's time to request a meeting with district administration to make your case.
Each district has its own nuances, but I have talked to enough parents to know that schools face similar challenges as well when it comes to providing quality food. Based on that, CAF has created a parent advocacy toolkit for parents who want to influence their school district's food, but aren't sure where to start. This provides information on school food regulations, sample agendas for committee meetings and tips to address challenges you're likely to face.
As with raising a child, it takes a village to create change. In all, about 30 million kids eat school lunch every day. So if you're passionate about healthy eating and understand how important it is for a child's ability to thrive, just know you can make a significant impact by helping improve the quality of school food.
Mara Fleishman is CEO of the Chef Ann Foundation, which provides school communities with tools, training, resources and funding to make healthier food and redefine lunchroom environments. She joined the foundation to focus on solutions to the school food crisis after nearly 20 years working in natural products, including 12 years with Whole Foods Market, where she served most recently as national director of partnerships.