school tray

As a parent of elementary aged kids, I know firsthand how many birthdays, Halloween parties, Christmas parties, Valentines parties, etc. are celebrated in the classroom each year.  Most, if not all, contain an insanely high amount of sugary and processed foods.  We are no longer permitted to MAKE THINGS FROM SCRATCH due to the alarmingly high rate of allergies.  Now all snacks for parties must come in a package with all ingredients legible to ensure no child gets sick.

I am also well aware of the broken food system in our schools and the fact that they count the tomato sauce on a slice of frozen, processed pizza as one serving of a VEGETABLE! 

Todays lunch for my 5th grader was:  4 deep-fried pre frozen popcorn chicken nuggets, tiny taters, a slice of stale white bread, barbecue sauce, ketchup, and milk.  This is what your Federal Gov’t has decided meets all the requirements of a healthy lunch for your little one.

My kids school also now offers an ‘ala carte’ option at lunchtime which basically means they can buy items that are not included with their regular lunch. These items are usually pizzas, french fries, chips, soda, ice cream or other high fat,  nutritionally void items.  Kids are now allowed to purchase items off the ‘ala carte’ without having to first purchase one of those nutritious lunches I just mentioned.  I have seen many kids walking to their table with nothing more than a large 20 oz bottle of soda and a bag of Doritos.

Unfortunately the sale of these ‘ala carte’ items is here to stay as it is a source of essential revenue for the schools.

Here’s how it works:

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) requires participating schools to provide free and reduced price lunches to all income-eligible students. The NSLP then reimburses schools for every free and reduced price lunch served by the school.  However, this reimbursement (along with other subsidies) does not generally cover the operating costs of most school food service programs.

Schools attempt to make up for this shortfall by selling items ‘ala carte’ or  through ‘fund raisers’ where students sell these foods for extra-curricular activities.

Food sold to children outside of the Federal lunch program are called Competitive Foods and are sold in the cafeteria, vending machines or as fund raisers.  (How many of you have gotten the Pizza Hut pizza kit flyers?)

The Gov’t Accountability Office  (GAO) estimated that in 2003-2004, 30% of all high schools generated more than $125,000 per school from the sale of competitive foods,
27% of middle schools generated more than $50,000 per school and
32% of elementary schools generated more than $5,000 per school [source].

What Can You Do?

As a parent who chooses NOT to give their children frozen processed lunches or sugar loaded snacks on a daily basis this can be very frustrating.   This is why I have chosen to speak out and become actively involved.

You can too.

There are many resources out there for parents to help make the school environment healthier for our kids.

But before you go marching into your Principal’s office or to the next PTA meeting and voicing your opinions, there are a few ways to go about it.  You need to educate yourself on how the school programs are run, especially in your district.

4 Resources to Help Get You Started


  1.  Start with the National School Lunch Program as well as the School’s Breakfast Program at the USDA’s website.
  2. RuddRoots Parents is a MUST read in helping you become familiar with the lunch programs in YOUR district. It was written especially for parent advocates.  It has tons of resources and printouts to help you organize yourself and gather information before heading out the door.  It teaches you how to become a School Food Expert, prioritize your goals and advocate effectively.
  3. Free for All: Fixing School Food in America is written by Janet Poppendeick.  A very well written book that tells firsthand how the school lunch programs got so broken, why it’s so resistant to change and how to go about changing it.  She has spent countless hours in school cafeterias, conducting interviews and researching this very subject.  A good read!
  4. Edibleschoolyard.org is a program that was started 17 years ago when a woman named Alice Waters went past the local elementary school and said it look liked no one cared about it.  She was granted permission to start a garden on just one acre of land on the school property.

By the 2nd year, the garden was growing both in size and population.  The third year their dreams of also having a kitchen became a reality.  They hired a chef and parents, neighbors and students alike participated.

Ten 90 min teaching classes were being held both in the garden and the kitchen.  Pretty soon cisterns were collecting rain water for the garden and chicken coops were being built.

Today they have over 100 species of vegetables, herbs, flowers, trees and berries.  This program has inspired national as well as international programs.  Maybe this can happen at your school!  Truly inspiring!!

The Bottom Line:

As more and more funding is being cut from our schools, so are the extra curricular activities, art and music programs.  The funds from these ala carte items and fund raisers help cover some of the expenses, including athletic equipment, uniforms; new computers (or fixing and maintenance) arts programs such as band and chorus; text books, library books; field trips; school assemblies; playground equipment; as well as general school overhead such as facilities and grounds maintenance.

Until the Federal Government wakes up and puts the money where it BELONGS (in our schools) parents, teachers, and administrators are doing what THEY can to fill the gap and that, my friends, is to continue with the sale of unhealthy competitive foods, brownie bake sales, vending machines in the middle and high schools, Pizza Hut pizza kits and other unhealthy fund raisers.

Raising awareness is the very first step.  School lunches have never had a reputation for being ‘healthy’ and as time goes by they seem to get worse.  It has taken advocates like Jamie Oliver to break the Pink Slime bombshell wide open.  This is what the Government was sneaking into your kids ‘healthy’ school lunches to stretch the beef and make more of a profit.

In other countries, they make FOOD part of the EDUCATION process.  Kids LEARN about food, nutrition and the value of respecting your body and what you put in it.  It’s only here in America where we put 5 and 6 year olds out in the front of supermarkets to sell boxed, processed, nutritionally void foods to offset the deficit in their schools budget.

A national policy is needed to regulate just how much junk food and advertising enters our schools.  Until then, please become more aware of what your children are being fed as the choices your kids make today will severely impact their health tomorrow.


Government Accounting Office, School Meal programs

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind