Every day, between classes on history, math, and health, U.S. schoolchildren down a gut-busting array of fatty foods and sugary snacks. Although federal nutrition guidelines exist, thousands of schools, faced with shrinking budgets, depend on junk-food sales to support programs. Currently, an estimated 150 school districts nationwide benefit from lucrative contracts with vendors such as Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut.

Fortunately, change is in the air. Fed up with the sugar-laden items hawked in school snack bars and vending machines, parents are working with students, teachers, and administrators to bring healthier foods back to campus.

At Southern Hills Middle School in Boulder, Colorado, parent Leslie Pomeroy recently started a campaign to overhaul the snack line after witnessing students purchasing chips and candy bars—for lunch. "There didn't seem to be any consciousness about the long-term effects of these foods," she says. "We were just giving the kids what they wanted and making money for the school. I felt we had a greater responsibility to our kids' health than that."

Pomeroy and other concerned parents formed a committee to meet with administrators, and received the go-ahead to shop for healthier snack options that would still generate school income. Taste tests and surveys gave students a voice. The goal? Great-tasting snacks ("if stuff doesn't taste good, kids won't buy it," says Pomeroy) containing 35 percent or fewer calories from fat, 10 percent or fewer calories from saturated fat, and less than or equal to 35 percent total weight from sugar. Juice drinks must contain at least 50 percent fruit juice and no added sweeteners; sports drinks must contain less than 40 grams of sugar or sweetener per 20 ounces. Soda and caffeinated beverages aren't allowed.

As changes inch forward, students' reactions are mixed. Grumbles are inevitable, says Pomeroy. "Changing our eating habits is like trying to turn around the Titanic," she observes. "It's a long process. But our kids' health is a battle worth fighting for."

—Elisa Bosley

What You Can Do

  • Substitute. What nutrition lessons are your children learning? At home and at school, substitute fried chips with low-fat popcorn or pretzels, bottled caffé lattes with herbal tea or flavored sparkling water, candy bars with fresh fruit or energy bars.

  • Educate. Work with your child, other students, and teachers to create "smart snacking" tips; publish them in your school newsletter. Push for nutrition education in food and health classes; make sure to involve students creatively (how about starting a students' recipe contest?).

  • Speak out. Write your congressional representatives urging enforcement of healthier nutrition guidelines in schools (see www.senate.gov and www.house.gov). For more information, check out the USDA's National School Lunch Program website at www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch.