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KIWI magazine

lunch dayIn order to strengthen school meal programs and promote healthy changes to school menus, it’s important for parents to understand how school nutrition programs work. Every school must follow federal regulations when planning and serving school meals, and each school cafeteria has challenges and circumstances that can affect menu planning, ranging from available equipment to local labor and food costs. Here are some questions to discuss with your school’s food service director or cafeteria manager to help you better understand the food system at your child’s school—and how to improve it.

1. How do you develop the menus?

The menu development process varies among school districts, so this is a way to find out how it happens at your school. You can ask: Who’s on the team that develops the recipes? Who buys the food? How often do the offerings change? Ideally, you’ll get answers that show you how much thought is put into each day’s lunch.

2. How have your menus changed in recent years to meet the USDA guidelines?

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program are required by federal law to serve meals that meet a variety of nutrition requirements. Some schools have had to make big menu changes to meet the guidelines, but for others it’s just a matter of making existing menu items more prominent. Ask the food service professionals if they can compare a typical lunch from this year to one from a few years ago, and you’ll get a sense of what they’ve changed.

3. How are the lunches at our school funded?

By asking this question, you’ll be able to learn more about the challenges your school faces in getting healthy food onto the lunch line. Money might be received from the school district, the state, or the federal government—but even when there’s a federal reimbursement for meals served to low-income students, the amount often doesn’t cover the real cost, which includes the cost of preparing and serving those meals. So schools rely heavily on student and faculty food purchases to cover the rest. Ask for a breakdown of where your child’s lunch money goes—it can be fascinating to learn how schools stretch their dollars!

4. What’s the difference between the main items in the lunch line and the extra things kids can buy?

School meals consist of the main entrée items and sides that make up the main school menu. This is what the federal government reimburses the district for and therefore what is subject to the federal nutrition guidelines, so the food service professionals should be able to point out why each and every item is there, nutritionally speaking. The other things you’ll see for sale (like snacks and beverages besides milk) are called a la carte items. They help fund the rest of the food being served and, depending on the school district, can run the gamut from whole grain granola bars to sugary sports drinks. Find out what a la carte items are offered at your school so you can voice your opinion on whether they are the healthiest choices.

5. How can we support your efforts to get students to try the healthier food choices?

Food service providers should be able to explain what they’ve learned about making healthy food appealing to children, thanks to their years of working with kids. By telling them you want to support their efforts, you’ll be reinforcing the idea that National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day is about building communication—so you can all work together for the benefit of the kids.

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