Parents Advocate for ‘Real Food’ for Kids in Fairfax, Va.


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Parent organization Real Food for Kids (RFFK) aims to improve the nutritional quality of food served at the public schools in Fairfax County, Va. These parents want all students to get healthy, fresh food that will fuel their bodies for physical and educational performance. As stated on their website: “We know, just as you do, that when a child is well-fed with nutritious, real food, he/she is healthier, better behaved and better able to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

By doing research and educating themselves, they discovered the volume and breadth of processed foods and foods with artificial dyes and additives being served at their schools, even though these foods were allowed by USDA nutrition guidelines for school lunches.

The parent group advocated for a new policy—which was implemented in schools for the 2012-2013 academic year—to begin removing foods with artificial dyes, additives, and other highly processed ingredients, and replace these foods with fresh foods. Although challenges cropped up, the group indicates that the policy is making an impact in their schools, and the group is working to sustain the policy and improve the quality of food in Fairfax County’s public schools. More than 15% of the population in Fairfax County is Hispanic.


Awareness: JoAnne Hammermaster, president and a co-founder of Real Food for Kids, attended lunch at her child’s school. She was shocked to see the unhealthy fare being offered for sale. In the lunch line, she observed a student buy fruit, ice cream, and a frozen yogurt and fruit dessert. When asking the lunch server why the student was able to buy two desserts, the lunch server insisted that only one of the items was a desert. That’s all this student was buying for lunch, and it was made worse when they had a cupcake to celebrate a classmate’s birthday—yet no one was doing anything about it, Hammermaster said. Seeing a student essentially eat three desserts for lunch showed Hammermaster that most parents don’t really know what their kids are eating and don’t know what is being offered.

Learn: Hammermaster found other parents who had similar concerns. They began to discuss what could be done to change and improve the food nutrition, and realized that the issue wasn’t only in their school and they would need to go to the county.

These parents formed the group Real Food for Kids of Fairfax County, Va. so that they could work together to make change in their county and improve the quality of food their kids were eating.

The Fairfax County website lists the ingredients of all foods served in public schools. RFFK observed that the USDA guidelines for calories, fat, sodium, and other nutrition information was being instituted and followed in schools, but that didn’t mean the foods were healthy. They found a quesadilla on the menu that had 76 ingredients and a burger that had 26. They also discovered that most of the foods were prepackaged and therefore had large amounts of preservatives. Processed foods can have surprising amounts of sugar, sodium, and saturated fat due to the process involved in preserving and packaging them. By prolonging the shelf life through preservatives, often flavor or appearance is sacrificed, and adding additives and artificial coloring can improve these elements. Additives, artificial coloring, and preservatives are not natural to the foods served in many cafeterias; they are added to the foods that are served to students. Studies also have found that many artificial food dyes and preservatives negatively affect children’s behavior and activity levels.

Overall, RFFK learned that even though their school foods follow the USDA guidelines for nutrition, the lunches being served to the students aren’t fresh foods.

Frame Issue: After discovering the high number of preservatives, additives, and highly processed foods being served at schools in Fairfax County, RFFK decided that their main goal would be to encourage the school system to remove the highly-processed foods off the menu and begin to incorporate more real foods.

While framing the issue, the group had to consider the fact that none of the schools have full kitchens—just ones that are only equipped to heat and serve pre-made items. The group also envisioned facing issues with monetary support, because getting foods like fresh chicken may be more expensive than getting processed and condensed chicken from a large corporation. And finally, parents knew that this process of changing policy and encouraging students to eat healthier would require support from the local school board and other parents.


Education: Through a member’s personal connection with Ann Cooper—an author, chef, educator, and enduring advocate of increasing the healthy eating of children—RFFK was able to have her come speak to the School Board about the benefits of fresh, healthy food. She spoke about the perils of childhood obesity and the importance of children being able to eat healthy at school and have fresh food options in their cafeterias. Because of Ann Cooper’s visit, the School Board began to support the efforts of RFFK and understand the need for change in their lunch menu.

Students of Fairfax County that support RFFK and attended Food Day 2012. Source:
Students of Fairfax County that support RFFK and attended Food Day 2012. Source:

RFFK also organized a Food Day event in October 2012 to raise community and parent awareness about healthy eating. This day educated students and parents about how to live active lives and eat healthy, fresh foods. By using taste tests and hands-on activities, RFFK was able to educate over 400 people who attended the event about the importance of healthy eating. These efforts, in combination, generated the support of school board members and parents alike for RFFK’s efforts to get fresh, real foods into the school cafeteria, and highly processed foods out.

Mobilization: RFFK and its parent advocates worked to inform other parents and generate additional advocates to support the cause as they together pushed for this policy change.

Debate: The challenge of not having fully equipped kitchens to prepare fresh foods required a unique work-around. RFFK successfully found other food options to offer students so that foods like the 76-ingredient quesadilla, the 26-ingredient hamburger, and a grilled cheese sealed in a plastic bag could be taken off the menu. Hammermaster pointed out that even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had come pre-made in pre-packaged, sealed plastic bags. These items could be replaced with fresh bread and ingredients that have less preservatives and additives. RFFK wanted to mostly focus on replacing foods containing MSG, high fructose corn syrup, added sugars, artificial sugars, partially-or-fully-hydrogenated oils, or an extremely high number of ingredients.

They also wanted to identify monetary solutions that would stem from menu changes. One money-saving suggestion was meat-free Monday meals, which would not include a meat-based protein and thus would cost less. However, after discussion, this meat-free option did not gain approval because of different eating habits of children, the fact that not all families are used to eating meat-free meals, and the possibility that such a change would be too drastic for local schools. The menus for the elementary, middle, and high schools were each planned to be the same across the county to encourage cost savings.


Activation: RFFK worked closely with the School Board throughout the planning process and promoted incoming changes to other parents in the community. For this policy change to gain momentum and become successful, it needed the support of parents, teachers, students, the community, and the School Board. RFFK began to give presentations at schools, to the school board, faculty, and parents. They also spread the word of their plan through social networking and by having media coverage of the changes they were making. RFFK was able to gain the support from many individuals and were able to begin planning the exact menu changes.

Frame Policy: RFFK knew the next step was to list as many foods as possible containing harmful and unhealthy additives, preservatives, processed ingredients, and have them removed. These non-fresh foods were not serving as adequate fuel for the energy student bodies needed for physical activities or academic learning.

So RFFK envisioned a policy that examined each item on the school menu, and identify a way to replace it with a “real” food (with no preservatives or additives). At first, the policy would examine only a few items at a time to ensure that the school had the time and resources to properly look at each menu item and ingredients, taking the approach of gradual, sustainable changes rather than abrupt, immediate changes. Included in policy plans were salad bars in every school, which would offer fresh salads, vegetables, and fruits.

Having kids self-select their food would encourage them to try new things and only take what they could eat, to avoid costly waste of fresh foods. By finding and replacing high-ingredient, highly processed foods with real foods, including adding salad bars, RFFK hoped to promote healthy eating and living, helping to fight childhood obesity.

Change: After re-framing a policy that considered challenges, such as the prep-only kitchens and menu that must be for the whole county, RFFK brought the policy before the School Board and were met with immediate support and approval. The School Board supported the healthy ideal of a revamped menu, and voted to approve it for implementation. It was recognized that this policy would provide healthy meals to students, some of whom get their meals only from the school, helping improve the function of students physically and academically while aiding in the fight against childhood obesity in Fairfax County.


Implementation: This policy was implemented in the 2012-2013 academic school year in Fairfax County, Va.

From the implementation through March 2013, local schools have replaced many of the unhealthy items previously identified. Their previously 26-ingredient hamburger is now 100% all beef and quesadillas have been removed from the menu. The process of changing the menu to be full of whole, real foods is gradual however. Pre-packaged PB&J sandwiches still remain, along with a few other pre-prepackaged, processed foods. The other aspect of this policy that is not yet fully implemented is a plan to bring salad bars to all the schools. By the end of the 2012-2013 school year, only 11 of the 196 schools in the county are expected to have active salad bars, due to concerns regarding food safety and how the salad bars will affect budgets.

Overall, the policy has proven successful in removing more than 80% of artificial additives, dyes and preservatives from the school menu.

Equity: In March 2013, RFFK was funded by the School Board to begin a yearlong assessment of school cafeterias and of the RFFK policy to see how effective it has been and will be.

This assessment will survey parents, students, teachers, and other school members to find out how the policy is being received. It will also review changes made and examine their effectiveness in the cafeteria. By doing this assessment, RFFK can find out what works and doesn’t work in their policy. RFFK opted for an in-depth, yearlong assessment so it would be able to gain as much information as possible about how their policy is working, and be able to make future changes that will ensure longevity of the policy.

RFFK also is planning to translate many of their materials and presentations into other languages, such as Spanish and Korean, because the group sees the need for families of other ethnicities to understand what changes are being made in the cafeterias. RFFK wants these families to get involved in making positive changes in school nutrition, too.

Sustainability: Changes are still occurring in Fairfax County public schools, as the policy was meant to continue making gradual, ongoing changes to menus. Plans to keep this policy strong and relevant to all schools are already in place. They also will have another Food Day Celebration to educate more students, parents, and community members on what is happening in their school cafeterias and how they can incorporate healthy eating into their lives. As well as the educational Food Day Celebration, they will hold a Culinary Challenge to involve high school students in menu planning for the county’s schools. RFFK will challenge groups of high school students to create and cook recipes for a competition, where winning dishes will be incorporated into the menu for the whole county.

Through continuing the gradual changes to the menu, having an assessment of their policy and cafeterias, and continuing to involve the community and students in educational activates, RFFK hopes that its policy can be sustainable for many years to come.

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

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Expected rise in Latino cancer cases in coming years

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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