Scroll to:
Scroll to:

Step 1: Get Educated

Parent Advocacy Toolkit

At the Chef Ann Foundation, we want to inspire, educate, and activate parents to advocate for better school food in their communities. The Parent Advocacy Toolkit is designed to guide you through school food advocacy in three clear steps: Get Educated, Get Organized, and Take Action.

Step 1: Get Educated

Parent Advocacy Toolkit

At the Chef Ann Foundation, we want to inspire, educate, and activate parents to advocate for better school food in their communities. The Parent Advocacy Toolkit is designed to guide you through school food advocacy in three clear steps: Get Educated, Get Organized, and Take Action.

Research, Articles & Media

Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) centers on improving school-food standards for fruit, vegetable, and whole-grain portions, while placing limits on sodium and fats. The legislation, which took effect in 2012, covers topics ranging from local wellness policies to school fundraiser concessions.

United States Department of Agriculture

The USDA department of Food and Nutrition Services oversees the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Read their helpful FAQ sheets for a basic understanding of these programs, their backgrounds, and how they function:

Hierarchy of School Food Decision Making

Decisions regarding school food range from the federal to the local level. The Center for Ecoliteracy created this outline, which clearly delineates the levels of authority and their responsibilities.

State-by-State Statistics

The Food Research and Action Center created an interactive tool showing each state’s statistics concerning child poverty rates, food insecurity, and participation in federal nutrition programs—including school lunch and breakfast—as well as the federal funding they receive to support those programs.

School Food Equipment Status Report

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Food Project, a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, completed a nationwide study of study of school kitchen equipment. The findings summarize the equipment and infrastructure needed by schools to prepare and serve fresh food. They also show how many schools are lacking the necessary equipment and infrastructure.

Smart Snacks Guidelines

Smart Snacks in Schools, another component of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, was phased in during the 2014–15 school year. The USDA provides guidelines governing the nutritional quality of snacks and beverages sold in schools. Here are highlights of smart snacks guidelines from the USDA.

Nutrition and Academic Performance

Food insecurity and childhood obesity affect many of the 55 million school-aged children in this country. Improving school food is an important part of the solution. The benefits of well-fed and active children include better behavior, fewer absences, higher self-esteem, and increased academic performance. Find a snapshot of statistics, along with case studies, at “The Learning Connection: What You Need to Know to Ensure your Kids are Healthy and Ready to Learn.”

Universal School Breakfast

The number of schools offering breakfast – and the number of students eating it – grows every year. To make meals even more accessible, districts are opting to offer breakfast to every child in the classroom. To learn about this important nutrition program, explore “Start the School Day Ready to Learn with Breakfast in the Classroom: Principals Share What Works” and ChildhoodObesity180’s “The Breakfast Effect.”

U.S. News and World Report

Chef Ann Cooper, the founder and president of the Chef Ann Foundation, blogs about current school food legislation.

The Lunch Tray

Bettina Elias Siegel, school food advocate, author, former lawyer, and parent of two children, covers an extensive assortment of topics related to children and food, including food policy, school food reform, and family dinner recipes.

Food Politics

Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of What to Eat and Food Politics, writes about food justice and nutrition research.

Fed Up With Lunch

Sara Wu, an elementary-school teacher, masqueraded as “Mrs. Q” as she blogged and tweeted about the school lunches she consumed over the course of an entire school year. She highlighted her journey in the book Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project.

School Nutrition Association

The mission of the School Nutrition Association is to advance the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy. It’s also a lobbying force for school food change at the federal level. Their views don’t always match those held by CAF, but they offer an alternate perspective to school food solutions in their weekly “Tuesday Morning” policy and awareness newsletter.

Berkeley Unified School District: A Case Study

The 2008 case study of Berkeley Unified School District’s school lunch program remains the beacon of in-depth studies of school food reform. “Lunch Matters: How to Feed Our Children Better, the Story of the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative” outlines the complexities and challenges of one district’s successful efforts to change their school food program.

Alice Waters, founder of the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Edible Schoolyard Project, teamed up with Chef Ann Cooper and the Center for Ecoliteracy to create the School Lunch Initiative, which helped transition Berkeley Unified School District’s school food program to wholesome scratch-cooked meals. The overhaul included the introduction of cooking classes, nutrition-based curricula, and school gardens.

Oakland Unified School District: A Feasibility Study

The Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a feasibility study for Oakland Unified School District to determine the roadmap for comprehensive reform of their nutrition services. The study addresses the question of what needs to happen in order to overcome systemic injustice and improve student health and academic performance.

Boulder Valley School District: A Study in Salad Bars

Colorado Farm to School published a white paper on Chef Ann Cooper’s implementation of salad bar programs in all 54 schools by 2010. The paper provides a broad overview of funding and stocking the salad bars, with a special emphasis on local procurement.

Breakfast in the Classroom: Two Case Studies

The School Nutrition Foundation, along with its four partners, conducted two case studies of Breakfast in the Classroom. Funded through Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom, the studies focus on Memphis City Schools and the Dallas Independent School District.

School districts across the country have made significant changes to their food programs. While there are no case studies documenting these changes and their impact, the revised programs serve as models showing what other districts can accomplish, especially with the help of parent advocates:

The Lunch Line Blog

Here, you’ll find regularly showcased school districts, food service directors, staff members, parents, and advocates who are creating school food change in their communities.

The Mix

This blog features Salad Bars to Schools’ Salad Bar Heroes who have successfully integrated salad bar programs into their food service. Salad bars are a great way to ensure that every student has daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Locavore Public Schools

The Good Food Purchasing Program highlights five models for local school food procurement used by schools across the country.

USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS)

In 2005, the FNS published a paper about success stories at 32 different schools. Though the account is now over a decade old, the actions that schools took remain relevant.

School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention put together a report regarding the relevance of nutrition and physical activity in schools. The report includes nine guidelines to help schools establish policies and practices that will have a positive impact on students.

The Effect of School Food on Childhood Health

This 2009 study (link to abstract), titled “Nutritional quality of the diets of US public school children and the role of the school meal programs,” measured the nutritional quality of diets in 2,314 public school children and found a very strong association between the school lunch program and overall diet. Higher school lunch participation was associated with excessive sodium and saturated fat intake. The silver lining of this finding is that school lunch is changing to have a lasting positive impact on children’s health.

Academic Impact of Improved School Nutrition

As part of his “Feed Me Better” campaign, Chef Jamie Oliver set up a natural experiment in the UK that demonstrated the significant positive effects of dietary changes on children. The study followed one school that implemented scratch-cooked meals and banned junk food. The result was an increased academic performance in English and science, as well as a decrease in authorized absences, which are usually associated with sickness.

Academic Impact of Nutrition Education

This study measured sixth graders’ test scores before and after the implementation of a nutrition and physical education program (the EatFit program) at a school in California’s Central Valley. The follow-up test scores were significantly higher than baseline scores, illustrating the positive effect of nutrition education on academic performance.

Making the Case for Healthy, Freshly Prepared School Meals

The Center for Ecoliteracy gathered research from around the country to make the case for healthy, freshly prepared school meals. Discover research on health, academic achievement, and finances that provides you with important facts.

Salad Bars in Schools

When asked what single thing schools can do to improve their nutrition programs, Chef Ann Cooper responded, “Get a salad bar.” The Gretchen Swanson Center for Education conducted an evaluation of the “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools” (now Salad Bars to Schools) to determine the effect of salad bars on the nutritional quality of school food and children’s eating habits.

Healthier School Food is a Hit with Students

In 2012, schools started serving healthier school meals under the new USDA guidelines. At first, students complained, but a study from Bridging the Gap shows that, given some time, students grow to like healthier meals.

Explore our Knowledge Center, including Chef Ann’s TED talks. Also check out these insightful blogs, films, and websites to inspire school food reform:

Get to Know Your School

Let’s Do School Lunch!

The first step to changing school food is to understand the current food served at your child’s school. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to “do lunch” with your child or children. The experience will give you a rapid understanding of many aspects of the school food program beyond the quality of the food. If your children are in different grades, it’s a good idea to eat with them all, as the menu and service across grades may differ.

Keep your eyes open when you visit for lunch, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn all you can about different areas of the food service program. Consider the following aspects as you eat with your child. Some of these questions can be answered before or after your visit through online research and examining your school’s website. Don’t feel that you need to answer every question, this is meant to be a guide to get you thinking about all aspects of school food.

Cafeteria Logistics

  • Are students being served their food or serving themselves?
  • What are the lunch lines like – long, or short? Do they move quickly, or slowly?
  • Is there a salad bar?
  • Do kids get to choose what they eat?
  • Are healthier items placed in front of less healthy items?
  • How much time does it take for your child to fill her lunch tray and find a seat?

Dining Atmosphere

  • How is the cafeteria designed?
  • How loud is the room?
  • Is it clean and bright?
  • Is it a convivial atmosphere?
  • What is the flatware and silverware like (paper and plastic, or real cups, plates, and cutlery?)
  • Is everyone eating?
  • Are the kids enjoying themselves?
  • Are they focused on eating?

The Lunch Period

  • How much time does your child have to eat?
  • Is the time scheduled for lunch sufficient?
  • Can you finish your meal during the lunch period?
  • Is lunch before or after recess? (Children tend to focus more on eating after recess.)

Nutritional Quality of the Food

  • How much of the food is fresh and how much is processed?
  • Is it scratch-cooked?
  • Is it tasty?
  • Is it healthy?
  • Is dessert offered as part of the meal?
  • Review the ingredients and nutritional information (ask a food service staff member for this information if it isn’t readily available online). How much sodium, fat, and sugar does the meal contain?


  • Review the weekly menus. Is there a wide variety of options?
  • Are there vegetarian options?
  • Is fresh fruit and/or vegetables part of every meal?
  • How often are less healthy options (like french fries and pizza) available?


  • Are the food service staff friendly and available for questions?
  • Are there lunchroom monitors or volunteers to help out in the dining area?
  • Can students talk to adults about their food choices?


  • Where / How are cafeteria and other foods for sale marketed to students?
  • What information is emphasized?

Competitive Foods

These are food items sold during the school day that students can purchase and do not provide money to the school lunch program, including: a la carte items, vending machines, and school stores. As of the 2014-2015 school year, all foods sold during the school day are required to meet Smart Snacks nutrition criteria.

  • Where / How are Smart Snacks sold?
  • What types of foods are sold? Are entrées sold that can compete with the school food program?
  • Ask your food service director: What do sales of Smart Snacks fund for your school?

School Breakfast

  • Does your school serve breakfast?
  • Is it before the start of the regular school day, or is it “after the bell”?
  • Is it served to all children or just to those who qualify for free and reduced-price breakfast?
  • Is it served in the cafeteria or in the classroom?

Other Questions

Some questions can’t be answered during your child’s lunch period and are better directed toward a school administrator and/or the food service director.

  • How are menus developed?
  • How have menus changed to meet the recent USDA guidelines?
  • How are the lunches at our school funded?
  • Where/how is the food purchased?
  • What’s your approach to fresh food and local procurement?
  • Is food preparation outsourced?

Before you begin to reach out to others in the community, it’s important to determine your top priorities. There are lots of opportunities in the world of school food so choosing what is most important to you will help focus your work and keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

Your priorities will also determine your approach. To begin, determine if the issues you’re interested in are school-based or district-based. For example:

Consider factors as you choose your priorities. Which changes will be easy to make? Which will have the most impact? Which will require significant organization and advocacy at a grassroots level?

  • If you’re concerned about the length of the school lunch period, it makes more sense to talk to the school principal than the district-wide food service director (who cannot make this decision).
  • If you would like to see more fresh vegetables or less fried food on the lunch trays, however, talking to your school principal may have little impact. This is an issue under the food service director’s control. Keep in mind that most systemic and sustainable changes happen at the district level.

​Pick your battles. Smaller change leads to larger change; no school food service program can change all at once. What do you want to focus on?

  • Local sourcing?
  • School gardnes?
  • Ridding the school of junk food marketing and vending machines?
  • Nutrition education?
  • Longer lunch periods?
  • Ingredient transparency?
  • Salad bars?

Consider implementation factors as you choose your priorities.

  • Which changes will be easy to make?
  • Which will have the most impact?
  • Which will require significant organization and advocacy?
  • Once you have your priorities, be flexible. Know that they might change once you Get Organized and Take Action.
  • The Child Nutrition Act requires all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program to write and implement a local school wellness policy. This document covers everything from school food to nutrition education programs to physical activity recommendations. The USDA’s Local School Wellness Policy page details the background, requirements and evaluation of these policies.
  • Understanding the district’s wellness priorities will allow you to find an opening for dialogue with key stakeholders, such as administrators or the school board. Familiarize yourself with the school district’s wellness priorities by reading through the wellness policy. These documents can often be found on district websites or be obtained from the district. Use the policy to identify points where your goals intersect with those of the district and effectively integrate your passions and advocacy within that context.
  • Establishing common ground will give you a better chance of engaging stakeholders. For example, parents may want stronger standards for vending machine offerings than what is outlined in Smart Snacks regulations. The local school wellness policy might explicitly state a similar goal, or it might state a goal of improving students’ eating habits. In either case, there is a shared vision. Action for Healthy Kids’ School Wellness Policies 101 offers some great information and suggestions for working with school wellness policies.

Finally, be aware that the district’s main school food priorities may not be outlined in a wellness policy. For example, the largest concern of many districts is a school food program that is budget neutral (doesn’t lose money) or makes a profit. If that’s the case, it’s best to frame your goals within the context of the district’s fiscal priorities. For example, one argument could be that better school food would mean increased student participation, which in turn would increase federal reimbursements. Remember to have evidence on hand to back up your claims!

Understanding School Food Infographic

Understanding school food in America can be dizzying. In this infographic, we break down the following topics in a way that is easy to digest!

Step 2: Get Organized

Now that you know the benefits of scratch cooking, it’s time to assemble a team to advocate for reform. Remember that parents, community businesses, organizations, advocates, and taxpayers are stakeholders in your school district just as much as administrators, teachers, and students.

Step 2: Get Organized

Now that you know the benefits of scratch cooking, it’s time to assemble a team to advocate for reform. Remember that parents, community businesses, organizations, advocates, and taxpayers are stakeholders in your school district just as much as administrators, teachers, and students.


Sign Up for our Newsletter

Thank you for signing up for our newsletter!

There was an error, please try again.