Promoting Healthy Eating at School

Promoting Healthy Eating at School

Strong relationships between community partners and key stakeholders in schools – administrators, teachers, food service staff, recess/lunch supervisors, custodians, students and parents – creates a foundation upon which farm to school programming can flourish. Cultivating trust includes demonstrating that farm to school values are aligned with the implicit and explicit values of the school culture. It may take work to clarify these values and help the school community understand the importance of healthy food and food education for students’ school experience.

Wellness Policies

Developing a school wellness policy and implementation plan presents an opportunity for districts to specify values and practices for what food is offered, how and when food is served, and what food education will be provided.

The Cafeteria Environment

The cafeteria is an important classroom where children can learn to develop healthy eating habits, nurture social relationships, and nourish their bodies in order to thrive. Research has shown that the cafeteria environment makes a difference in what students eat which, in turn, affects their physical well-being, academic achievement, and classroom behavior.

Healthy Lunchroom Design

Physical Design

There are many physical features of the school cafeteria structure to consider in creating a healthy eating environment.

Cafeteria Atmosphere

In addition to the physical structure of the cafeteria, there are other features of the physical environment that contribute to the overall atmosphere and affect students’ food choices and consumption in school cafeterias.

Time to Eat

Allowing enough time for students to eat affects both the quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables they eat and the total quantity of food they eat. Ensuring that students are consuming enough nutrients, in turn affects academic achievement and school behavior. Adequate time for lunch also reduces food waste. Research has found that giving students 20-30 minutes of seated time (after they have received their meal) is adequate for eating lunch at a good pace.

Breakfast After the Bell

Students often do not eat a proper breakfast, offered either by the school or by their parents, because of the rush to get to class on time. Offering a simple nutritious breakfast to all students after school has started, helps students concentrate throughout the day and perform better academically. Offering breakfast to all students ensures a solid foundation for the day, and reduces any stigma associated with breakfast before school in the cafeteria. In fact, many schools can fund free breakfast for all students with the federal “Community Eligibility Provision,” and most schools find that a successful breakfast program improves their whole meal program.

Recess Before Lunch

Recess Before Lunch (RBL) is just what it says – the students go to recess first and then eat lunch. Schools have found that by implementing RBL, students have decreased behavioral problems in the hall and lunchroom, are more settled upon returning to class, and consume more food (which results in less food waste). A variety of resources are available to provide guidance in establishing a new schedule, evaluating RBL, and overcoming barriers to the transition.

Food Served at School Outside of Mealtimes

School Celebrations

There are a variety of ways that schools offer and serve food before, during, and after school hours. School celebrations are one opportunity for schools and staff to focus on healthy food choices and food education.

Snacks Sold at School

Smart Snacks Standards are a federal requirement for any foods and beverages sold to students outside of the school lunch or breakfast program, including from school stores or snack bars, and fundraisers.

Healthy Fundraisers

Finding ways to make school fundraisers more healthy is a concern for both school district administrators and parents. There are many ways raise money for schools and promote healthy choices at the same time.  

Reducing Food Waste & Waste Management

The strategies described above help increase the amount of fresh and healthy food students eat. The flip side is reducing the amount of food that is thrown away. Encouraging students to “take what they want and eat what they take,” is one of many strategies to reduce the amount of healthy food that goes to waste. Other strategies include cafeteria production efficiencies, reducing packaging, and establishing environmentally-friendly ways to manage waste in school cafeterias, rather than throwing everything in the garbage. Proper waste disposal and waste reduction are important lessons that students learn in the cafeteria. Raising awareness among students and parents about how to pack a waste-free lunch from home also helps reduce the tons of plastic garbage that can enter the school cafeteria waste stream.   

Functional Waste Disposal Systems

Setting up a waste station in the cafeteria requires a commitment from a team of school staff. Factors to consider when setting up a system are: where the waste station is located, how the students access it, and how the flow of traffic moves through it. Employing older students to help younger students separate waste into correct bins is a way to increase student engagement with waste management in the cafeteria.

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