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Written by Robyn O’Brien, founder of the AllergyKids Foundation, author of The Unhealthy Truth
Today, one in eleven children struggle with asthma, and one in four are affected by allergies. The incidence of allergy has increased significantly over the past two decades, and allergy to peanuts has more than doubled from 1997 to 2002. Approximately 30 million children – more than 1/3 of our kids – are affected by one of these four new childhood epidemics. This is not something we can just accept.
The official statistic holds that allergies affect some 7 million Americans, including about 6 percent of children below the age of three. That information comes courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford, J., D.V.M., Ph.D., speaking before the Consumer Federation of America on April 22, 2002. But that data is now almost ten years old.
Since then, the only update we’ve had is from the Centers for Disease Control and a report issued in 2008 that said that there has been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions.
This begs explanation.
An allergy is basically an overreaction by your immune system to a protein that it perceives as a threat—for example, the proteins in particular types of food, the dust mite protein, or pollen. For people without allergies, these proteins are harmless. But if you’ve got an allergy, your immune system sees these proteins as dangerous invaders.
To drive the invader out, your immune system mobilizes all its resources: mucous, to flush out the intruder; vomiting, to force it out; diarrhea, to expel it quickly. Such conditions may make you feel sick, but they’re actually evidence of your body’s attempts to get well.
A key aspect of the immune response is known as inflammation, characterized by one or more of four classic symptoms: redness, heat, swelling, and pain. Inflammation doesn’t occur only in allergic reactions; it flares up whenever your body feels threatened, in response to a bruise, cut, bacteria, or virus as well as to otherwise harmless pollen, dust, or food. Scientists now believe that much of our immune system is found in our digestive tracts, where many of these inflammatory reactions occur in the form of stomachaches, cramping, nausea, bloating, and vomiting.
Ironically, the immune system’s inflammatory reaction—meant to heal and protect the body—often causes more problems than the initial “invader” in the cases when allergic reactions become life-threatening.
Common Symptoms of Food Allergy: Immediate Reactions
* rash or hives
* stomach pain
* itchy skin
* shortness of breath
* chest pain
* swelling of the airways to the lungs
Food Allergies and Food Sensitivity: Our Immune System Overreacts Again
At first glance, the distinction between “allergies” and “sensitivity” may seem like a meaningless word game. But understanding the relationship between these two conditions is crucial to grasping the true nature of the allergy epidemic—and to seeing how even the supposedly healthy foods in our kitchens may be harmful to our health.
As we’ve seen, allergies are an overreaction of our immune system, a kind of exaggerated response to a perceived danger. When a child comes in contact with these proteins (peanut, egg, wheat, etc.) her immune system “recognizes” the protein as dangerous, just as it would have seen the danger in the bacterium that causes pneumonia or the virus that causes mumps. In response, her immune system creates special “fighter” proteins called antibodies designed to identify and neutralize the “invader.”
These fighter proteins are known as immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short. When they’re released into the bloodstream, their purpose is to “seek and destroy” the invader, which they do by creating one or more of the classic food allergy symptoms, such as the hives, or the diarrhea with which other children respond, or, in more extreme cases, the anaphylactic shock that can kill a child within minutes.
The classic IgE response occurs within minutes or even seconds, because IgE proteins are some of the most aggressive antibodies we know. That immediate IgE response is the defining characteristic of an allergic reaction.
Food sensitivities start out in a similar way. If a “sensitive” child is exposed to a protein that his system perceives as a threat, he’ll manufacture another type of fighter protein, known as Immunglobulin G, or IgG. Although IgE and IgG antibodies play similar roles, they produce somewhat different—though often overlapping—symptoms.
A crucial difference between the two, though, is their reaction time. The less aggressive IgG antibodies typically produce a delayed response that might not appear for hours or even days after the child has consumed the offending food.
So even though food sensitivities and food allergies both produce painful, inflammatory, and potentially dangerous responses, this delayed reaction time has led many doctors to give food sensitivities second-class status. Partly that’s because they don’t present an immediate and obvious threat to children’s lives: only the IgE proteins trigger anaphylactic shock, for example, and in that sense, only the IgE proteins can kill (though the IgG reaction can have serious long-term consequences). I also think that traditional doctors tend to downplay the importance of nutrition, frequently dismissing the idea that such symptoms as earache, eczema, crankiness, brain fog, and sleep problems might be related to a child’s diet.
However, an article in The Lancet, Britain’s most respected medical journal, casts another light on the subject. The article referred to doctors who use elimination diets—diets that begin with a very limited, “safe” array of food choices and then add potentially problematic foods back into the diet, one by one.
The reason to do an elimination diet is to identify which foods in your diet might be triggering symptoms like skin rashes, fatigue, or stomach ache. Often, some foods affect us without our realizing it and we live with the symptoms, taking medicine to alleviate the suffering. But if you eliminate these foods from your diet, you may find that your symptoms disappear. What becomes even more interesting is that when you reintroduce the offending food, you may suddenly suffer drastic symptoms which make it clear that the food was indeed triggering one or more problems. An elimination diet can sometimes reveal with dramatic speed that a particular food you’ve always believed was harmless is actually causing such chronic symptoms as headache, digestive problems, and even more serious complaints. Masked by your daily diet and by the slowness of the food-sensitivity reaction, the offending food does its dirty work without ever realizing that it is the culprit behind your—or your child’s—disorders.
When you take a break from eating that problem food, however, and then add it back into your diet, you see how powerful its effects are and how responsible it may be for a seemingly unrelated problem. Foods that you thought were safe for you turn out to be highly problematic, indicating the presence of a previous undiagnosed food sensitivity. As a result, the authors of the Lancet article conclude that the prevalence of food sensitivity (referred to in the article as “food intolerance”) has been seriously underestimated.
Certainly, food allergies are far more dramatic. Whenever you read about a kid who died within minutes of eating at a fast-food joint or after breathing in the peanut dust from a friend’s candy wrapper, that’s an “IgE-mediated” food allergy. They’re fast, they can be deadly, and I’m glad doctors want to give them the attention they deserve.
But I also think doctors should be looking at delayed reactions, too, the “IgG-mediated” responses to food sensitivities. And some doctors do look seriously at both. Most conventional doctors, though, tend to focus on IgE immediate reactions. I think there are lots of reasons why they should view the two types of reactions as part of a larger, single problem.
First, both reactions have the same ultimate cause: the immune system’s overreaction to apparently harmless food. According to internationally acclaimed author and physician Kenneth Bock, M.D., there’s also quite a bit of overlap between IgE and IgG symptoms. Both can contribute to inflammatory responses in multiple body systems.
True, the delayed IgG reactions are less likely to cause hives and are more likely to produce a host of apparently vague symptoms, such as headache, brain fog, sleep problems, joint pain, fatigue, and muscle aches. But both the immediate and the delayed responses are immune system problems triggered by a supposedly “harmless” food.
Conventional doctors’ tendency to separate “IgE-mediated” food allergies and “IgG-mediated” food sensitivities into two separate problems has the effect of minimizing the allergy epidemic. Remember, IgE allergies, IgG sensitivities, and asthma—three similar ways that our immune systems can overreact—are all on the rise. It makes sense to find a doctor who is willing to address all three as symptoms of a greater underlying issue.
Common Symptoms of Food Sensitivity: Delayed Reactions
* gastrointestinal problems, including bloating and gas
* itchy skin and skin rashes like eczema
* brain fog
* muscle or joint aches
* sleeplessness and sleep disorders
* chronic rhinitis (runny nose), congestion, and post-nasal drip
1. Even if your kids can’t talk, their skin speaks volumes! Did you know that the skin is a person’s largest organ? Even when your kid is too young to tell you how he feels or too used to her symptoms to identify them (when kids hurt all the time, they don’t know they hurt!), you can often read your child’s condition in his or her skin.
Does your kid have eczema? Does he get rashes around the mouth, especially after he eats a certain food or swallows a certain beverage? Rashes around the knees, elbows, or armpits? Does he have “allergic shiners”—that is, dark circles under the eyes?
These are all inflammatory reactions, signs that the body is trying to rid itself of what it perceives as “toxic invader.” In your child’s case, that “toxic invader” might be an apparently harmless food, to which your kid is either allergic or “sensitive.” Keeping that invader away from your kid may bring relief from symptoms—and it may clear up other problems, such as brain fog, crankiness, sleep problems, inattention, acne, and mood swings.
2. The toilet bowl has a lot to tell you. Your kids’ bowel movements, not to be too delicate here, also speak volumes. Runny poops are a sign that a person isn’t properly digesting his food. And indeed, as we got the allergens out of some children’s diets, poops tend to firm up.
3. Chronic ear infections are often a sign of dairy allergies. In some cases, milk may have ill effects like eczema, upset stomachs or chronic ear infections for children who are allergic or sensitive to it.
4. Find a doctor who is willing to work with you, test for both IgE and IgG allergies and sensitivities and to address the important role that elimination diets can play in managing allergic symptoms like eczema, ear infections and chronic mucous.
Disclaimer: Always discuss individual health inquiries and medical issues with a qualified personal physician and/or specialist. Robyn O’Brien/AllergyKids is not responsible for medical decisions made by any one person. The professionals who share their knowledge, discussions, minutes, handouts, agendas, and other products do not constitute medical and/or legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Always discuss individual health inquiries and medical issues with a qualified personal physician and/or specialist.
At AllergyKids, inspiration matters to us…a lot. Because when you are handed a diagnosis – whether it’s a life-threatening food allergy or a child’s cancer – you need every shot of hope, inspiration and strength that you can get.
So when a friend emailed an article titled, “Happy Anniversary,” the same week that marked the 6 year anniversary of that life-changing breakfast that resulted in a food allergic reaction at our breakfast table, I reflected on how there really are no coincidences. Just lessons.
And we are grateful for them.
And when we hear stories like the one you are about to read below, we feel compelled to share them. Not because we believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness, but because they offer so much hope. And hope is the knowledge that change is possible even when it seems hard to imagine.
I have never been into anniversaries. That sounds so un-romantic. I am always aware how many years Lance and I have been married, for example, and secretly psyched when we made it a decade, and kept on going, but I didn’t care about making a big deal about the actual day. I like to celebrate random days, not necessarily THE day.
However, this anniversary is different. It’s significant. It brings mixed emotions. Usually when you say “Happy Anniversary” it’s because that particular day was a celebratory one. A year ago was not celebratory for us. In fact, it sucked. It was hands down the worst day of our lives. I was sitting in ICU thinking all the worst things one could think, crying my eyes out, ridden with shock and sadness.
So when I look at where we are now, I think now that’s something to celebrate! Lately, I’ve been looking at Lance, thinking, “Damn, you look good.” In fact, this past weekend, we were at some hot springs near Winter Park with our friends. We were all coming out of the changing rooms with our swim suits on and both my friend and I took a double take when Lance came out in his bathing suit. He looked fit and strong and healthy and just plain good. My friend said something to me about how Lance looked, I nodded.
And when I think about all that we learned and grew and did and tackled and accomplished in the past year, it makes me beam with pride. We worked hard at getting where Lance is today. We didn’t let anything get in our way…not doctors, not naysayers, not statistics. We just put those aside and tried to be the best students possible. We continued to learn as we went along and added, or subtracted whatever was serving us or not serving us and kept on forging ahead. This included not only nutrition, but meditating, visualizing, resting, learning, learning, and more learning, being conscious in everything we did and being really clear on what we had time for and what we didn’t. It was like the ultimate fine tuning of our lives.
Also, a year is significant because getting to a year in Lance’s case was a big deal and increases his chances all the more. A couple months ago, I started feeling that sense that we were coming up to a year and Lance was doing so good and it made me think of the little engine that could and I kept thinking, “Come on, you can do it.”
While my Dad was in the hospital here in Boulder with his broken leg, I asked him if he would like to see Lance’s last MRI. Since my Dad is a retired radiologist (that specialized in neurology) this whole business with Lance has been a little touchy. I knew without discussing his views that we had very different perspectives on Lance’s condition but he kept his thoughts to himself (thanks Dad, I am eternally grateful to you for that). However, in this bonding father/daughter moment, I showed him Lance’s last MRI and watched him as he stared in quiet disbelief. He really could not believe what he was seeing. Because what he was seeing was practically NOTHING!
We didn’t immediately share Lance’s results on purpose for 2 reasons. 1) We both needed it to sink in and savor it. 2) We don’t want to jinx ourselves and seem cocky (we are still in this game). Basically what was once the size of a racket ball is now the size of a pea (and that could be just dead tissue).
So what we have to celebrate is a successful year of extreme discipline. I don’t think about that day, one year ago, and what it was like. I think about today and how far we have come. I think about how life and every single day should be celebrated, not just that one day. I think about that no matter what you are going through, there is always hope, there is always beating the odds, there is that silver lining. I feel grateful that Lance and I were blessed with that strength and foresight to have the outlook we have had. I hope that no matter what you are going through, whatever adversity you are facing, that you can have the strength to pull yourself out of it. Know that life is constantly changing and if you face your issues head on, with love and openness, before you know it a year has past and you think to yourself (as I do know),”What a difference a year can make!”
About Nancy Gentry: Nancy is living proof that norms, rules (and diagnoses) are made to be broken. In January 2011, Nancy’s husband found out he had brain cancer and had major brain surgery a few days later. Rather than accept the doctor’s dismal diagnosis, Nancy decided to tackle her biggest life challenge with food, juicing, love, laughter, meditation and more and put her and her husband on an uber-healthy trajectory. It took a little while for the burger eating, fried food loving, multi-tasking, too busy running Justin’s Nut Butter president to adapt to this way of life. However today, Lance and Nancy feel they could not be healthier and look back on 2011 as one of the biggest gifts of their lives. Their new balanced lifestyle and attention to every aspect of their lives has given her husband a new perspective allowing him to thrive. Nancy has begun coaching others on incorporating love, laughter and veggies into everyday life (www.lovelaughveggies), creating preventative, inspiring lifestyles for those who want to live life to the fullest and healthiest both inside and out. She hopes to inspire people (and you!) to take care of themselves and learn from their experience and learn how to prevent DIS-EASE by implementing some simple changes in their life NOW. From the non-stop frenzy of producing her own tv show, to the runways of the Parisian modeling world to being one of the world’s first moms to choreograph their husband’s healing from a malignant brain tumor, Nancy is living proof that norms, rules and diagnoses are meant to be broken.
You can follow Nancy and Lance at www.lovelaughveggies.com
This short video has inspired countless individuals, businesses and thought leaders around the world. And today, we are highlighting it once again in memory of Steve Jobs whose passionate work seemed to give others permission to think outside the box and is an incredible reminder that “one man, with vision, courage and unwavering dedication can still change the world“.
So take a minute to watch it and think about what you can do to lend your unique talents and become part of the change. Because, together, we can create a healthy future for our children.
I looked down at the scale and it said 250 lbs. I couldn’t believe it. How did that happen?
I thought about all the diets I had been on over the years. Each one promising, each one failing. Atkins helped me lose 60 lbs. then after a year, I gained it and 50 lbs. more back. I tried liquid and eating pre-made meals (gross) of what I thought was healthy. I’d lose 20 lbs. then stop and gain it right back. Enough was enough.
I love food so I decided I’m going to learn everything about it.
What is real healthy food?
I first gave up sugar. Then it was white flour. My sons were both doing the Paleo diet so I learned from them about eating lean meats, vegetable and fruits nuts and seeds. The first month was horrible. The cravings for sugar were endless. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and likened it to a drug addict. Was I really this addicted to sugar? I started looking at all the foods in my cabinets. Canned foods with corn syrup added, salad dressings w/ corn syrup, whole grain cereals, there’s the corn syrup again! Products I thought were healthy choices were full of corn syrup and chemicals I couldn’t pronounce.
What is going on?!
I began dumping everything that was processed and wasn’t a whole food that was in my kitchen. My cupboards were bare.
I then began watching documentaries to get educated on where our food comes from. King Corn, Food Inc., everything netflix had to offer on food documentaries. My favorites was to market to market to buy a fat pig which was about Farmers Markets and where their food comes from… Wow, what a difference and that’s when I really started getting mad.
It’s also when I noticed children holding large red dye slurpys and I wanted to cry for them! I researched every farmers market in our area and began to learn more about Organic food.
I started talking more and more to my girlfriend Ellen who was concerned about the genetic Alzheimer’s in her family and was researching food right along with me to learn more about fighting disease. My mother passed away of Cancer just two years ago. So cancer is another disease I want to fight off now by making my body as healthy as I can.
Ellen and I got together for lunches weekly to go over what we had learned. I was thankful for this because many people just don’t want to know and we needed to vent about GMO, Pesticides, Processed Food, Corn Syrup and our poor American farmers, seed companies and drug companies and giant food corps. Are they all working hand in hand making our families over weight, allergic, sick and dieing.
How did this happen? And what can we do to make it stop!?
Youtube had an amazing amount of wonderful recipes from our Vegan, Vegetarian, Raw foodies and Paleo friends. I have learned to make my own almond bread. I make zucchini pasta my husband and I love. Together we juice in the morning fresh Organic vegetables and fruit. I still eat meat but it has to be grass fed, pasture finished, eggs too. I can’t believe how wonderful this whole Organic food tastes! Were my taste buds numb before?
It’s been five months. And people started noticing the weight loss.
I’ve lost 45lbs. on this journey so far and I call it a journey because its not a diet. I’ve completely changed what I eat for life. It’s not something I will stop once I lose the weight. I have to much information now to ever go back.
My hope is to continue to lose at least another 6o lbs. but more importantly to get healthy and detoxify my body. My husband has lost 35lbs. and just got back from the doctors. The doctors told him keep doing whatever your doing, you’ve lost weight and your cholesterol went from 246 to 161and everything is within the normal ranges.
And this is a man who never ate veggies.
Learning how to make great organic food has made all the difference.(Thank you Youtube!) I’ve also begun gardening, so often in the afternoon I am tending to our organic tomatoes, zucchini lettuce and bell pepper. Watching the garden grow is an awesome reminder of how its really supposed to be.
I have an 8 month old grandson and two more on the way that I want to inspire and be a part of. I feel like I have a whole new wonderful life awaiting me by discovering whole foods. More then anything, I want everyone to have this gift. Just know that it all started with one change. The rest just kept coming.
By Dana Woldow of P.E.A.C.H.S.F, Parents Educators & Advocates Connection for Healthy School Food
I’ve been working on fixing school food in San Francisco since 2002, and have served as co- chair of my school district’s student nutrition committee for over 7 years. I don’t work for the school district and never have; I am a parent volunteer. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with others who are hoping to drive change in their own school districts. Here are a few key points to understand before jumping into the battle:
1) Fixing school food is a team sport. You will get nowhere on your own, so be sure you have a core group of supporters who share your goals.
2) You have to make the decision going in that, no matter what, you will never, ever ,ever give up until you attain your goal.
3) Change is hard for a bureaucracy, and good bureaucrats always want to do what is easiest; that’s usually just doing what they have always done. You must make these folks realize that you are not going to give up and go away (see #2), that you are going to keep coming at them , and that each time you do, you have more people behind you. Eventually they will realize that it is easier to just give you what you want, rather than continue to do what they have always done while trying to fight you off, and at that point, you will prevail.
4) Fixing school food is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who want everyone in the world to like them. There will be those who won’t like you, those who will call you “the food police” or worse, and you may even make a few enemies; you have to be able to shrug that off. I always tell people who are put off by my blunt attitude that fortunately I am not running for Miss Congeniality.
5) Nothing happens overnight. It’s okay to dream big, but break your dream down into smaller pieces which can realistically be achieved. Celebrate every success, even if it is just baby steps. Getting to your ultimate goal will take years; you need to be in this for the long haul.
6) You may not know as much as you think you do about fixing school food. Much (really most) of the media coverage of this issue has been faulty, sometimes misrepresenting the situation, sometimes outright untruths. Some of the loudest voices in the debate have their own agendas to push, which skew the public debate. Try to be aware of who might have partnerships with businesses that may be focused on profit as much as on kids’ health, or a book, TV show, movie, consulting business or service to promote, and be a little skeptical when deciding what to believe. Keep an open mind and be ready to learn from every experience.
7) Every school district is different, and something which works in one place may not work somewhere else. Among the differences are cost of labor, availability of outside funding, quality of facilities, and socioeconomics of the community.8) School food is highly regulated by the government and you have to be aware of all of the regulations; it takes a lot of reading and asking the right questions before you can really understand what is involved in getting to your ultimate goal. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on this!
So, with those key points in mind, here is my Everybody’s Guide to Fixing School Food.
Your very first step towards fixing school food should be Getting Educated. School food is tightly regulated by the USDA; your state and even your own school district may also impose further regulations. If you don’t understand the regs, you will get nowhere with your student nutrition director, and without the cooperation of your student nutrition director, you will get nowhere with fixing school food. A great place to start is with Janet Poppendieck’s excellent book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.” However, at a certain point, you are going to have to confront The Beast – the sections of the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) that deal with school food. Here is the link:
Start with SubChapter A – Child Nutrition Programs, Part 210; this part deals only with the National School Lunch Program; the School Breakfast Program has its own enormous set of regs, but if you understand the lunch regs, it will be easier to understand breakfast. Don’t try to read this all in one sitting; rather, think of it as a resource, the first place you go to try to find out what the regulations are. Skim through and get a sense of what is there.
It is important that you be at least familiar with all of the regs Janet P. discusses in her excellent book. There may come a time when someone who does not want to give you what you are requesting tells you that “the regs won’t allow it” and you must be informed enough to know if this person is telling you the truth or just bluffing to make you go away. You will also find that you have to be a teacher of the regs as well as a student; it will be up to you to make sure that others you come into contact with, including your supporters, key district officials, and the media, all understand the regs too. Right now it is a safe assumption that 99% of them don’t; you will have to understand well enough to be able to teach others. This is a process; you don’t need to understand everything before you begin. Just keep at it and try to learn a little more each week.
Next step is to find a posse of other like minded individuals – parents, students, teachers, school nurses, health care professionals – who are willing to work with you. I call this Getting Organized. This isn’t as hard as it sounds; lots of people recognize that school food is a problem, but most of them don’t know what to do about it, and for sure they don’t want to be the ringleader. You have to be the ringleader, but once you assure people that they don’t have to lead, just follow, you would be surprised at how many people will sign on. Start at your own kids’ school, but branch out from there. If your school or school district has a parent listserv, that can be useful for finding people who share your concern. If you can get just 8-10 people to start, that’s plenty.
Have a meeting and let everyone share their concerns about school food. Brainstorm about what you would like to change. What would your ideal meal program look like? Prioritize the changes – what is most important to your group? Try to break big changes down so that they are manageable, because for your first challenge, it needs to be something you can actually win. A big win early on really galvanizes a group. So, for example, don’t pick something like “switch to scratch cooking” or “use all organic ingredients” for your first challenge – no one gets that on the first try. Instead, something like “Offer fresh fruit instead of canned 3 days a week at lunch” is much more doable.
Pick a good name for your group and get everyone’s e-mail address so you can easily stay in contact even if you can only meet in person once a month. If you have a group member who is willing to set up a website for your group, that can be hugely helpful moving forward. When you wage your various campaigns, it is so much easier if all of the information people need to have about the issue can be found in one place. That way, you don’t need to explain the issue to each person, you can just refer them to your website where they can find everything they need including background, who to contact, what to say, etc. You can also use the site to promote your group’s successes, archive your press releases, and solicit new members. Visit www.sfusdfood.org to see an example of such a site.
Once you have organized your core group, you need to start Getting Connected; this is where you research your school board members to find out which one(s) are most likely to be sympathetic to your cause. Look for people with a medical background, or those with youngish kids in the public schools, or those who have fought similar battles in the past, especially battles based on the idea of social justice, that low income students deserve the same respect and services as higher income students. I think it will be obvious once you know about your school board members, which ones are the likely candidates to support you.
When you have identified one or two, make contact. Don’t be intimidated by these people – generally people on school boards are just like you – concerned citizens who think that they can make the schools a better place for the kids. Call or e-mail your target and ask for a meeting; explain that you represent a group of concerned stakeholders who have some practical ideas for improving kids’ health and academic performance through better school food. Make your pitch for better school food, but make sure your target understands that you are not asking (at this point) for a complete overhaul of school food, but rather for the one thing that your group decided upon – our hypothetical is “Fresh fruit instead of canned 3 days a week at lunch.” Try to get your target to agree in principle that better food would mean better nourished kids; have the documentation with you showing the connection between better nutrition and better academic outcomes (not hard to find on the internet.) Remind your target that when the food gets better, more kids eat the school meals and that brings in more income for the meal program, which in turn funds the purchase of better food. Make sure they get it that you are not asking for something which would bankrupt the school nutrition program. If you sense resistance, at least ask for a pilot at your own kids’ school; be sure you have your school Principal on board with this. The most likely response you will get from your target school board member is some form of “Let me think about it.” That’s fine, but even if you get an outright “I don’t think that’s a good idea”, move on to the next step.
Now it is time for Getting Active. After the meeting, have everyone in your group write to the school board target and thank him/her for meeting with you, and express support for whatever it was you requested. Ask each member of your core group to get just two of their best friends to send a similar e-mail; group members can even write up key talking points and send to their friends to cut and paste into their own message (the easier you make it for people not directly involved in your crusade to support you, the more likely they will do so.) If you have already gotten your website set up, put up all the information there, and then just refer people to the site, where they can get all the info they need (including e-mail address) to write to the school board member. If you can get 25-30 people to e-mail your target about this, all saying more or less the same thing, it is really likely that your target will support it. Individual e-mails are much more impressive than petitions; you want to fill up your target’s inbox, and petitions don’t do that.
At a certain point, your target is likely to refer you to someone within the district administration – either the student nutrition director or that person’s boss. You may need to start the process all over again here, but with luck, now you have the support of your school board target; make sure the district person knows that, as it is invaluable. Make your request; have your supporters e-mail to show their support, and let the district person know that you are not just one parent asking for this, but a group. Be sure to cc your school board supporter on your correspondence with district administrators.
Let’s say you asked for a switch from canned fruit to fresh fruit 3 days a week at lunch, and you got this relatively small change approved; make sure everyone knows what you have achieved. Getting Coverage is essential to moving forward. I highly recommend trying to get one of your core supporters to agree to take the role of PR person for the group; this is a big job and really needs its own dedicated person. If anyone in your group has a media or PR background, that’s the person to court, but really anyone who is comfortable writing can learn to do this.
Use whatever parent listservs are available to get news out directly to parents. Then make a list of all of the reporters from every news outlet in your town who ever cover school or children’s or health issues, everything from TV down to the smallest weekly shopper newspaper. Write up a press release lavishing praise on the student nutrition director or his/her boss, whoever it was that agreed to the change you asked for, as well as the school board member(s) who supported you. This is KEY – do NOT claim the credit and praise for yourself or your group! Thank the district official for supporting student health, and also thank your school board friend(s). It is vital to tell the public that these people value student health and good nutrition for kids above all else (especially if you feel that they only gave you what you wanted grudgingly and maybe they don’t really value student health….) because once you have announced it to the world, what the hell are they going to do – say they DON’T value student health? Make it all about them, and what a hero they are, and how they are following in the footsteps of Ann Cooper and Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan. This makes it so much easier when you go back to them in another month and ask for the next thing on your list. They need to understand that the decisions they make about your requests are going to be made very public, and that they can be the hero and support better food for kids, or it can go the other way and the public will hear about and react to that, too.
If you can’t get any of the media to cover this as a story, try writing it as an opinion piece for the largest newspaper in town (if they won’t run it, go to the next largest paper, and keep going until someone runs it.) As a last resort, try writing it up as a letter to the editor. Be sure to check the guidelines for letters which your local paper probably has online. If they say letter should be limited to 150 words, don’t go over the limit; keep it short and to the point.
Letters to the editor are a good way to promote your work any time there is an article in the paper which is relevant, maybe something about child obesity, or about the poor quality of school
lunches nationwide, or about growing interest generally in higher quality food, or the White House getting involved in student nutrition. This is a perfect opportunity to let people know that the local angle on this national story is that your schools now offer fresh fruit three times a week instead of canned fruit, thanks to the visionary leadership of Ms. Nutrition Director and Mr. School Board Member, who both prioritize student health above all else, because they know that malnourished students can’t learn. Thank you, thank you Ms ND and Mr SBM! Signed, You, Chair of the Yourtown Student Nutrition Group. This short letter accomplishes so much – it promotes the school meal program and lets people know that there is fresh fruit being served; it highlights the “vision” of two key players whose support you need to move forward; it connects student health with academic achievement; and it lets people know that your group exists and has a voice.
That’s it – lather, rinse, repeat. You are on your way to fixing school food! Good luck! Return to “How To Guides” home page
Return to P.E.A.C.H.S.F, Parents Educators & Advocates Connection for Healthy School Food
You can also learn more from Chef Ann Cooper at www.thelunchbox.org