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  • Andrea Strong

8 Easy Ways to Improve Your School's Food & Wellness Right Now!

1. Start a Wellness Council!

Your PTA probably addresses lots of things like arts, science, libraries and fundraising. But you can also get parents, teachers and staff together to form a Wellness Council. The DOE even gives grants to school Wellness Councils every year! A Wellness Council can work to implement a snack policy (perhaps advocating for fresh wholesome foods over candy and cakes), can host monthly fruit and vegetables tastings for students, run after-school workshops for parents, implement nutrition and food education in the classroom, even add things like a morning track clubs, and other school-based programming to help raise awareness about nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness.


2. Adopt the Alternative Menu

The DOE offers three main menus offered for K-8. The classic menu, alternative menu and vegetarian menu. All schools receive the classic menu, a fast-food styled menu of popcorn chicken, mozzarella sticks, burgers, pizza and Tostitos tacos bowls, unless otherwise requested by the principal.


The Alternative Menu was originally developed by Wellness in the Schools as a more scratch-cooked menu with more plant-forward options. Originally called the WITS menu, it has since been changed to the Alternative Menu. It includes three vegetarian meals and two scratch cooked items—homemade dishes, such as veggie chili, chicken and cheese quesadillas, and more—meals that are made by people, not from bag to oven, not heat and serve fast food.


Because the Alternative Menu contains less meat and fewer highly processed foods, it is better for your kids! Research shows that highly processed foods are not only harming our health, but creating lifelong patterns of eating fast food outside of school, which leads to obesity and related chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, all on the rise in kids.


Also, according to a report from the Brookings Institute, when a school contracts with a healthy lunch company, students at the school score better on end-of-year academic tests. On average, student test scores were about 4 percentile points higher. Not only that, the test score increases are about 40 percent larger for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches.


To have your school switch to the Alternative Menu, your principal must request the alternative menu from your school food manager. The change will take about a month. It does not cost more. The Alternative Menu still features Meatless Monday, pizza and burger day, so it’s not all that different but it does offer less processed food and more home-cooked food.


If your school doesn’t have a full kitchen, you can still get the Alternative Menu. It will be brought in from a nearby school.


Before you make the switch, market this to your community. Share the menu and get families excited about the new options. Since the foods may be unfamiliar to children, and they may not eat lunch. If participation drops, the principal may switch back so we do recommend having school wide by-in and programming to support the menu.


We recommend that parents get involved in promoting the menu before the switch, and continue to do tastings and send home flyers encouraging participation. Coalition for Healthy School Food will come to your school and do free tastings; Wellness in the Schools also does cook camps to help train your kitchen staff. Some schools send home the menu each month and make a game out of it, asking kids to play menu Tic Tac Toe, choosing three meals a month to try; other schools send home recipes (there are some on the website but others can be requested from your school food manager) and encourage families to make the meals at home so kids are used to it.


3. Add Food & Nutrition Education to Every Classroom!

According to a National Wellness Policy Study, well-implemented nutrition education can help children obtain healthy weights and BMIs, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, develop positive attitudes towards those foods and improve academic performance. Yet research published by the Tisch Food Center shows that nearly half the city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs.


To bring nutrition education to your school, and find a program that’s right for your school’s budget and needs, please visit the Tisch Center Online Resource or check out programs like Fan4Kids, WITS, Spoons Across America, Brighter Bites, Allergic to Salad, and more.


4. Get Rid of Chocolate Milk

The chocolate milk served by DOE every day at lunch contains 20 grams of total sugar, 12 grams of natural sugar from lactose and 8 grams of added sugar. Those 8 grams of added sugar add up to almost one third of a child’s daily sugar allowance according to the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization, which both recommend that children limit sugar to 5 percent of their daily intake —about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams — of added sugar per day. 


To get all that added sugar out of your child's diet, you can simply ask your principal to stop serving it. Interestingly, the NYC Department of Health (DOH) actually opposes serving chocolate milk because of its high sugar content (20 grams per 8 ounces) and the high rate of obesity in children. The DOH has an online toolkit with flyers and a letter to your principal. Some schools choose to remove all chocolate milk and others keep it as a special treat on Fridays. Do what’s right for your community.


While there are currently no lactose-free milk alternatives offered by DOE, if your child has a lactose allergy or intolerance, you can bring a doctor’s note and give it to the nurse and your school food manager can order lactose-free milk for your child.


5. Request a Water Jet

Water jets, which keep water cold and fresh, have been shown to be an important tool in fighting obesity. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics  that was conducted in New York City’s public elementary and middle schools, installing water jets in cafeterias was associated with a small but significant average weight loss among students. “Water jets could be an important part of the toolkit for obesity reduction techniques at the school setting,” the study’s authors concluded. Every school is entitled to one, you just have to ask your principal and your school food manager. Find their name and contact information here.


6. Get a Salad Bar!

As long as your school has a kitchen, and an electric outlet you can and should have a salad bar. If you don’t, please ask your school food manager. Your principal should be able to introduce you. Or you can find your school food manager, contact your district manager, find their name and contact information here. Note that it’s up to the school food manager and staff to decide if younger kids can use the salad bar on their own. If they see kids just grabbing with hands, they will not allow children to use the salad bar so parents should be brought in to volunteer to help those kids access the salad bar.


7. Grow a Garden!

Studies demonstrate just how important growing the food is to creating lifelong healthy habits and to show children from a young age how important it is to sustain the earth. You can grow a garden in raised beds, hydroponics, or using a grow tower. You can fundraise or seek grants. For help in getting started, contact Edible Schoolyard, Green Bronx Machine, or City Growers, or GrowNYC. The great thing is you can do tastings with kids from what you grow, you can teach science, math, and social studies through food and use foods grown in your school garden in your lunch room (you just have to have a current soil test. Please contact George Edwards with questions).


8. Start a Leftovers Table

Kids never finish what's on their plate (mostly because they don't have time to eat, but that's another issue). A leftovers table allows kids to put their unopened non-perishable foods on a table for other kids to eat. This can be requested by your school food manager. It will be labeled in the cafeteria and kids can take from that table to supplement their lunch. Milks can be put there too as long as they are kept in an ice tray. NYC is looking to other cities who are giving uneaten food away to food pantries and more in an effort to reduce waste and serve the needy and hungry but in the meantime, this is your best bet.


Got an idea to share? Got a question regarding school food? Please contact Andrea Strong at nychsfa@gmail.com or visit our Facebook Group! You can also contact The Office of Food and Nutrition Services at SFWebsitesuggestion@schools.nyc.gov.




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