School Food Shapes Learning and Health—and Our Food System
At HSC, we take a systems approach to transforming school food and recognize the powerful role that policy plays in determining what students find on their cafeteria trays.
We place a high priority on school food policy because we recognize its power to:
Fuel learning: Healthy meals support schools’ core mission of education, especially when it comes to boosting students’ concentration, focus and cognitive function. A vast body of research shows that improved nutrition in schools leads to increased focus and attention, improved test scores and better classroom behavior.
Support healthy habits and consistent messages: Nutritious school food helps students develop lifelong healthy eating habits. It also contributes to a culture of wellness at school, reinforcing nutrition education messages from teachers. Healthy school food can also increase school connectedness and reinforce to children, families and community that students’ health and well-being are valued.
Drive change in the marketplace and food system: We see school food as a lever for food systems change. School food is a $16.3 billion federally funded program. This use of public dollars creates an important opportunity and responsibility for a policy discussion about nutrition standards, procurement and food systems. Strong nutrition standards in the school meal program can drive changes in the consumer markets. School food also influences the taste buds and values of the next generations of consumers.
Speaking Up for Healthy School Food
HSC’s work to transform school food focuses on policy change at the national, state and local levels. Because the program is shaped significantly at each level of policy, we need alignment on all three levels to achieve the goal of fresh, healthy meals for every student.
At each level, our approach is to empower, advocate and build. For example, our school food policy efforts focus on:
- Empowering school stakeholders, including students, parents and school food service leaders.
- Advocating for policies that promote healthy school foods.
- Building the capacity of local, state and federal institutions to support and implement health-promoting policies.
At the national level, efforts to roll back progress on school food policy have centered on the myth that students universally reject healthy school food. At HSC, we believe the most powerful and relevant response to this is from the students themselves. As a result, much of our national food policy work focuses on making sure that often-unheard student voices are part of this debate. We do this work through Cooking up Change, a competition for high school culinary students challenging them to create a healthy school meal that their peers will enjoy. Their culinary creations are proof positive that healthy school meals can taste great and appeal to students.
At the state level, HSC advocates for policy in Illinois to support healthy school food. HSC focuses on support for robust implementation of the standards determined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and particularly on building schools’ long-term capacity to support healthful school food programs.
As at the national level, we also work to elevate student voices in the state policy dialogue about healthy school food through Cooking up Change. For example, the winning student chefs from Cooking up Change Chicago each year present their meal to the Illinois State Board of Education and share their perspective on the value of healthy school food.
As HSC works for change on a national level, we are grounded in a special focus on Chicago Public Schools, where more than 85 percent of the district’s 400,000 students come from low-income families. We focus on empowering school stakeholders, advocating for district-level policies for healthy school food, and building the district’s capacity to procure and serve fresh, healthy food in a pleasant environment.
In particular, we are motivated by a vision for school food centered on ten interconnected pathways which are critical to the success of school food programs. We developed these pathways through our work with parent and stakeholder school food advisory groups we co-convened with Chicago Public Schools. Read more about the pathways and our work for school food in Chicago.
In addition to our work in Chicago, we provide tools and resources to support parents and other advocates in making change in their own communities. See our Resource Center for more.
Raise Your Voice: National
Your voice is especially vital as we approach a moment of risk and opportunity for national school food policy. As the administration proposes new rules that roll back progress and Congress gears up to reauthorize the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, your voice is more important than ever.
You can raise your voice in support of healthy school food policy by urging your elected leaders to maintain the recent progress supporting healthy food and healthy students.
Raise Your Voice: State
Because state-level school food policy varies greatly from state to state, the crucial first step for advocates seeking change at the state level is to understand your state’s particular policy environment.
An excellent starting point is the National Association of State Boards of Education State School Health Policy Database, which includes state-level detail about policies focused on school meals, competitive foods, wellness policies and more.
For highlights of successful strategies used by state agency leaders to promote healthy school food, see Promising Practices of State Child Nutrition Programs.
We encourage you to speak with leaders at your school to understand their school food challenges and opportunities, talk with parents about what they see, and learn about any advocacy organizations who may be working on this issue in your state. Based on this information, you can identify the most practical approach to creating change. See HSC’s Resource Center for more.
Raise Your Voice: Local
Many key policy decisions about school food are made at the local district and school levels. Your voice matters in your community! We encourage you to get involved in your school’s wellness committee, learn about your district’s Local School Wellness Policy, and talk with students about their experience with school lunch. For more, see our step-by-step guide to creating change through a school wellness committee.
Seemingly small decisions at the local and school level can have a tremendous impact. For example, a recent study found that adding just five minutes to students’ available lunch time led to a big jump in the amount of fresh produce they ate.
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.
Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools
The Food Waste Reduction Toolkit for Illinois Schools, a project of the Wasted Food Action Alliance, is a comprehensive resource that provides all schools the tools to tackle the issue of wasted food. It identifies the main sources of wasted food in schools and, using the EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy as a framework. Healthy Schools Campaign served as an advisor on the toolkit, and Space to Grow is included as a case study.
Ingredient Guide for Better School Food Purchasing
This guide from School Food Focus is a resource for school food leaders and manufacturers alike who are committed to improving the overall quality, nutritional value, and safety of food provided to all students in every school. It highlights unwanted ingredients to eliminate, or those to watch out for, as new food products are developed and others are modified.