The Diet Detective: Q&A With School Lunch Advocate Dr. Janet Poppendieck (Part 2)

*Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part interview focusing on the problems and some solutions for school lunch.
Diet Detective: How can one person make a difference and change school food at their children's school?
Janet Poppendieck: Well, one person cannot really do it alone; this is a classic example of a situation that requires organizing. One person can start the process, however. If you are a parent, the first step is to inform yourself about what is really going on in your child's school lunchroom. Visit the school at mealtime ? several times. Then talk to other parents, and talk to students.
Organize a committee of the PTA, or join a wellness committee if one exists, and if appropriate, encourage students to organize a parallel committee or join yours. The 2004 Child Nutrition legislation required each school district to convene a wellness committee, but in many communities, these committees were created at the local school level as well. Once you have a sense of parents' and students' concerns, meet with the food-service manager and ask her what parents can do to help.
In some schools salad bar equipment goes unused because there are not enough adults in the cafeteria to guide the children in using the bar. In some schools parental influence could result in a more realistic schedule for lunch. The point is to start by building a relationship, and then you can move on to your demands.
Typically, however, you may find that your major concerns cannot be resolved at the level of the individual school. The cafeteria manager often does not have the authority to make the changes you want to see. You need to move up the ladder to the school district's food-service director. When you do this, be sure to keep your local school cafeteria manager in the loop. If possible, you want to go with her, not over her head.
Working with food-service directors needs to begin with respect for their time and appreciation for their constraints. Food-service directors often oversee large budgets, numerous staff members and multiple building sites. They have to comply with extensive regulations, and they have limited resources.
I was moved by the frustration of a major city director who told me that in the three years previous to our interview, four different groups had come to see her about farm-to-cafeteria projects. Each group had several lengthy meetings with her, after which she provided information in writing. In each case, when they discovered how laborious and time-consuming a farm-to-cafeteria program would actually be, the group faded away. I'm not saying don't go to her with a vision for better food; I'm just saying, inform yourself first.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, reading Free for All is a good place to begin. There are also several blogs that contain a great deal of information: Ed Bruske's blog, The Slow Cook, contains great information based on his experiences with school food reform in Washington, D.C.

Bettina Elias Siegel, a parent, a writer and a school food activist in Texas, has created a terrific blog called The Lunch Tray.

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