Have You Eaten Lunch at Your Local School?

NJHI 2015: Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey – Communities Moving to Action Building a Culture of Health in Camden

National School Lunch Week (October 9-13, 2017) reminds us that as we work to build a Culture of Health in our communities, we should embrace the opportunity to visit our local school cafeterias to sample what is served to our children. Schools provide most of the meals kids eat weekly, so as health advocates, we should be aware of how well our local schools are performing in regard to serving student meals.

It has been a few years since I have dined in a school lunchroom, so I was curious to learn what had changed since my last experience. Last Spring, a few partners from our Get Healthy Camden coalition asked a local school if they would host us for lunch before the summer break, and invited their staff to join us. Our dining group consisted of two community liaisons, a parent, the school nurse, our agency partner and myself. Each of us chose a different item from the menu for the broadest perspective.

The day’s lunch menu included a choice of either pizza or a chicken patty sandwich, with either a garden salad or a fruit salad, and a side of either carrots or a fruit cup. While this sounds like a nutritious meal, our group raised concerns that the pizza was cold, questioned if the chicken patty contained filler ingredients, and commented that the fruit salad was not fresh. One member of our group felt that the fruit cup was the best part of the meal.

It’s important that those of us working to build a healthier Camden continue to advocate for the healthiest, freshest, and most palatable menu options in our schools. Healthy, nutritious meals lead toward a better learning environment for our kids and all students, and is what we need to strive for. While we did not collect data on how many meals were served, or how many students ate the lunch they were served that day, I’m afraid much went uneaten. Our students deserve good food choices. They deserve the time and oversight necessary for negotiating the best possible contracts between schools and food service provider. Some of our families in Camden do not eat well at home, especially during the weekend, so we need to ensure our schools are serving quality options. Healthy school food should be available for every child, including at schools with higher numbers of free and reduced lunch eligibility.

There are policies at the school level and at the state level in need of reform, and the Get Healthy Camden coalition is focused on facilitating those conversations. We are working closely with the school we visited to empower the school’s staff and parents to affect change. A school wellness team has been formed, with community agency stakeholders offering support and resources to assess current policies and opportunities for improvement. Together with the school’s leadership, we have drafted an action plan that entails step-by-step activities that address and align the school’s strategic plan, its food service operations and ongoing monitoring. In addition, our coalition has drafted a comprehensive school wellness policy to present to the school board, which will guide the process of improving the overall wellness culture in the school, with implementation beginning in the 2017-2018 school year.

As our students settle into a new school year, make a point to contact your local principal or school administrator to schedule your cafeteria visit. I invite you to follow our progress here, and learn more about the Get Healthy Camden coalition’s action plans and policies by reaching out to us on Twitter.

Learn more about National School Lunch Week

The Grantee Blog publishes a different NJHI-supported community’s update every Monday. Bookmark this site to stay up-to-date and share in the work of building healthier communities across New Jersey.


Valeria Galarza
Cooper's Ferry Partnership