School Food Directly Affects Health and Learning
Today’s students likely will eat more than 4,000 school meals by the time they graduate from high school.
With each meal comes the opportunity to support schools’ core mission of education: studies consistently document a powerful connection between health and academic achievement. A vast body of research shows that improved nutrition in schools can lead to increased focus and attention, improved test scores and better classroom behavior. Very simply, healthy, well-nourished students are more likely to attend school and to be engaged and ready to learn.
Nutritious and appealing school meals can also guide students toward a lifelong relationship with healthy food.
School Food is a Social Justice Issue
The federal school food program began nearly 70 years ago out of concern that so many children were underweight and malnourished. The crisis facing us today is both the same and different: Now, many children are both overweight and malnourished.
This crisis is especially stark in low-income communities of color where students face higher rates of hunger, obesity and other health disparities. These communities are particularly affected by patterns of disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy foods; the resulting disparities are perpetuated by economic, health and social justice issues.
Ninety percent of CPS students come from low-income families and qualify for federally subsidized meals. Many of these students rely on schools for most of their meals. At the same time, more than 40 percent of Chicago students are overweight or obese.
In this context, it is especially critical that the meals students receive at school are healthy and help build habits that support students’ long-term health and academic potential.
School environments—including school meal programs—play an essential role in addressing health disparities and in taking on today’s crisis of childhood obesity and malnutrition.
Scope of the CPS School Meals Program
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school meal program is the third largest K-12 food service operation in the nation, annually serving 75 million meals to over 380,000 students through its 665 food campuses. Through its meal program, CPS offers breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, after school supper and Saturday meals to all students during the school year. CPS also serves breakfast and lunch to students during the summer months.
Over the last decade, CPS has taken significant steps to become a national leader in providing healthy school meals through the implementation of high nutrition standards, more scratch cooking, and other policies that regulate the sale and marketing of junk food to students.
Current Focus: Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition
In 2018, CPS released an updated Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition with support from Healthy Schools Campaign and the School Food Advisory Group. This plan documents and make publicly accessible the district’s high school meal nutrition standards and health promoting initiatives and outline an action plan to provide healthy school food to all CPS students. The plan identifies 11 interconnected pathways to achieving its vision for healthy school food and provide a map for action.
1. Food Culture + Health
Offer culturally diverse, nutritious school meals that are appealing to students.
Support and expand the procurement of local and sustainably grown products and foods that are less processed and more nutritious.
3. Teaching + Learning
Deepen students’ knowledge, skills and attitudes related to where food comes from; how it is produced; and the connections between our food, our health and the environment.
4. Community Engagement
Involve CPS families and the community in the efforts to improve school meals by strengthening feedback mechanisms and providing engagement opportunities, including educational opportunities to raise awareness, understanding and support for the school meal program.
Continue being a national leader in serving healthy, delicious meals while igniting change by sharing best practices and using creativity to overcome barriers; use the purchasing power and prestige of being the third largest district to influence the marketplace to provide better quality products that are fiscally responsible.
6. Marketing + Communications
Promote healthy meal programs and meaningful learning environments to school staff, students and their families.
7. The Dining Experience
Create an inviting dining environment that encourages positive social interaction and healthy eating—a place that students enjoy, that makes meals a time they look forward to, and that helps them feel safe and valued at mealtime.
8. Professional Development
Provide regular professional development to support food service staff in providing excellent food for our students; help educators teach students about food and food systems as a way to learn about health and nutrition, cultural diversity, and the environment; support all school staff to model healthy behaviors to encourage healthy habits among students.
Have dining facilities that allow for the cooking of healthy and less processed meals and reinforces lessons learned in the classroom.
Ensure that the school meal program is fiscally sound while providing fresh, nutritious foods.
Support sustainable food systems and reduce waste while helping students understand the need to conserve natural resources. Implement green facility cleaning practices to reduce health risks for students and staff, and reduce the environmental impact of cleaning products and materials.
For details on the current status and plans, refer to the full Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition report.
CPS has been a national leader in meeting high nutrition standards and delivering healthy and affordable meals to the district’s students. In 2017, CPS adopted a new wellness policy that continues to improve school food by:
- Prohibiting reformulated products, foods that look like popular brands but are reformulated to meet school meal standards
- Committing to procuring local and sustainably grown food—including no antibiotic ever chicken
- Committing to implement the standards of Chicago’s Good Food Purchasing Policy
- Expanding the breakfast policy to include high schools and additional service delivery
- Formally adopting the community eligibility provision, which allows all CPS students to get free meals
National School Food Policy
School food in Chicago is shaped directly by federal school food policy and our nation’s food systems. Learn more about the issues, opportunities and challenges that shape school food on a national level in our School Food Policy section.
What We’re Doing
We have a long history of working with CPS to help shape the district’s school meal program. From our annual Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest to our advocacy efforts with local parents, we work for change that is meaningful, sustainable, and in the best interests of the students whose health and learning it directly affects. We also consider this experience as it relates to national school food policy.
Our approach to transforming school food in Chicago is based on an effective and time-tested model of working with key stakeholders to engage, advocate and build.
We engage school stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students and parents, among others—to help make the healthy changes they’d like to see at their schools. For example:
- Through our Cooking up Change program, we engage students in creating healthy and delicious school meals that meet the district’s standards, and in sharing their vision for school food with local and national decision-makers.
- Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program, we engage parents in developing the knowledge and skills to help bring about health-promoting changes at their children’s schools and reinforce healthy eating habits at home.
- Through our Fit to Learn program, we connect teachers and principals with research about the connection between health and academic success, and with effective strategies for creating a whole-school culture of health.
We speak up for meaningful policies and practices to improve school meals and make healthy school food more accessible to all students. For example:
- Parent leaders in our Parents United program spoke at Chicago Board of Education meetings in support of strong nutrition standards for school meals, which CPS has since adopted and put into practice.
- Parent leaders gathered more than 6,000 petitions in support of Breakfast in the Classroom and presented these petitions to the Chicago Board of Education.
- We galvanized partner organizations and community members to speak up in support of the 2012 update to the district’s Wellness Policy, which improved the school food environment with guidelines for school meals and for snacks and beverages available throughout the school.
We understand that change doesn’t happen on its own and that new policies often require new skills and resources. That’s why we work to build the capacity of schools to put health-promoting ideas into practice and to maintain positive changes for the long run. For example:
- We worked with CPS to co-convene two school food advisory groups—one of parents and one of citywide stakeholders—to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in the school meal program based on the meaningful input from these two groups.
- When CPS began piloting a Breakfast in the Classroom program, we worked with Parents United to engage parents and principals in piloting the program in their schools. Based on the success of this pilot, CPS expanded the program to grade schools across the city.
- Through our Cooking up Change program, high school culinary students each year develop a set of recipes that both meet the district’s nutrition standards and appeal to their peers. Cooking up Change meals have been served across the entire district and some have been adopted as part of the regular CPS menu.
Your voice and your actions matter in the movement to make schools healthier places for all children to learn and grow.
- If you are a CPS teacher or principal, you can get involved in our Fit to Learn program.
- If you are the parent of a CPS student, see the Parent Checklist: What You Can Do to Improve Your School’s Food document for a detailed overview of steps you can take. In addition, we encourage you to join or create a wellness team at your school (keep reading for more), learn about tools to help create healthy change in your school, stay informed with HSC’s Chicago newsletter and connect with other parents through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program.
- If you are a school nurse, you can learn more about our School Nurse Leadership program.
- We invite and encourage every one to learn more about and support our Cooking up Change, Space to Grow and Green Clean Schools programs, or learn more about national policies that impact all students.
Join or Create a Wellness Team
You can create change at your school by joining or creating a wellness team. The CPS Wellness Policy requires that all schools have a wellness team and a wellness champion to spearhead school health and wellness initiatives. Wellness teams are typically comprised of parents, PE teachers, classroom teachers, school health professionals, students, school administrators and community health and wellness partners. If your school already has a wellness team, we encourage you to join!
If your school does not have a wellness team and you’d like to start one, contact your school principal. Here are some tips to get started:
Recruit team members. Begin by reaching out to the school principal, parents, teachers, the school nurse, facilities managers, school nutrition and food service leaders, and students. Also, consider community members who may bring a particular skill or interest to promoting school health.
Identify goals. When your team is in place, assess your school’s current needs. What are the most pressing challenges with student health and wellness? Outline your resources, what outcomes you want and what barriers you might face trying to get there. Think about the opportunities that currently exist and the strengths you can find in your community.
Develop a plan. Now that you’ve identified your goals, write them down. Identify the strategies and milestones you can use to measure progress. Also, outline the step-by-step activities that will take you to success. Give allies on your team responsibility for specific steps.
Take the first step. Remember that you don’t need to do everything at once. Often, a pilot program will be the best way to gain acceptance for your goals, work out any logistical problems and test different methods.
Rate your progress. Regularly review the measurable outcomes you identified in your plan. Identify which steps have been taken, which milestones have been accomplished and what else needs to be done. If you’ve received any feedback, consider that in your progress report. Also, review the lessons you’re learning along the way.
Give high-fives. Celebrate your progress! To keep your team engaged and motivated, it can’t be all work and no play. Take time to recognize the steps you take successfully and the people working hard to make it happen.
Stay Informed + Stay Connected
Informing yourself about the issues involved in school health and sharing this information with others is an important step in creating meaningful change. It’s about learning, sharing and sparking conversations that get people thinking. We encourage you to:
- Check out our Resource Center
- Sign up to receive our newsletters
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @healthyschools
Make a Donation
As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift–large or small–will make a meaningful difference.
School Food Resources
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.