Top Ten Tips for Tackling School Food Reform

Are you a parent, faculty member, or other concerned citizen interested in making changes to your school’s food service program?  You may be key to helping a program adopt healthier, more appealing standards, but before you jump in, here are ten tips to keep in mind:

  1. Ask questions, assume nothing: It is important to approach this work with questions rather than solutions.  You may be surprised to learn that the ideas you had about making change may not be feasible or perhaps they have already been tried and the outcomes were undesirable.  You may also learn that those you assumed were resistant to changes may actually share similar goals and ideas but lack the necessary resources or support.  For example, if your school is serving a lot of prepackaged foods as opposed to fresh, you might consider asking the Food Service Director why this is.  It may be that he/she would prefer fresh but there are issues with cooking equipment or refrigeration space.  Asking questions allows you to understand why things are the way they are without passing judgment or unintentionally offending those who you most need as allies.
  2. Educate yourself: The most well-intentioned visionaries may not be aware of the many regulations imposed on school meal programs or the tight budget constraints under which they must operate.  Aside from just purchasing food, labor, equipment, paper goods, cleaning products, and sometimes even rent and utilities, must be factored into the budget.  This leaves most school meal programs with less than one dollar per plate to spend on food.  Furthermore, the food that goes on the plate is closely regulated by the USDA and must meet strict nutritional and safety standards.  To learn more, visit
  3. Find a school champion: Schools are complicated ecosystems with their own unique codes of conduct.  Partnering with a like-minded insider can offer insight into unforeseen obstacles pertaining to daily schedules, maintenance and custodial, transportation, conflicting priorities, and more.  A great place to begin your search for a school champion is within your school’s wellness committee.  Every school participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to convene a wellness committee.  Ideally each committee should include representation from administrators, faculty and staff, parents, students, and other community members.
  4. Assess the current situation: Take inventory of current equipment, supplies, staffing, and other available resources.  You may wish that your school offered more fresh produce, but without knives, cutting boards, proper refrigeration, or adequate staffing, that may not be a realistic goal.  Taking the time to analyze all aspects of the existing program will ensure that the steps you take lead to positive, sustainable changes.
  5. Get SMART: Take it slow and set small, realistic goals.  The most successful goals are: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).  This process may take more time, but it will ensure long-lasting success and continued enthusiasm.
  6. Offer to pitch in: Every program could use an extra hand in the right place.  Volunteers can help in a variety of ways such as: writing daily menu boards, greeting students and ensuring they take the necessary utensils, helping to deliver breakfast to classrooms, helping younger children open milks and condiment packets, collecting compost scraps, and wiping down cafeteria tables.  Lightening the load for others will allow food service staff more time to focus on food preparation and help to create a sense of teamwork.
  7. Identify other community resources: Chances are there are other community organizations willing to partner in your efforts.  Your local extension office, public health department, garden clubs, farmers’ markets, and local restaurants may be great places to find opportunities for collaboration.  Another great resource, the Chefs Move to Schools program through the USDA, pairs local chefs with schools to provide support for training, recipe development, and food preparation.  Visit for more details.
  8. Seek feedback: The best way to ensure buy-in for your efforts is to ask the opinions of those involved.  Create simple surveys and distribute them to all stakeholders.  Make sure there are opportunities for students to voice their opinions, too.  Tasting events can be a great way to collect feedback and spread enthusiasm for new meal options.
  9. Celebrate your progress: Although it may feel like things are not moving quickly enough, taking time to celebrate even the smallest victories will keep everyone motivated and acknowledge the efforts of everyone involved.  One way to do this is to document your progress through photographs along the way.  Pictures may engage the whole community by allowing them to see the changes that have been implemented.
  10. Share your successes with others: All across the country schools are looking for innovative ways to make their programs more successful.  Sharing best practices saves time and money and can inspire a ripple effect of change.  Contact local media to highlight your story and reach out to other schools to help them get their own movement started.


April Neujean, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County