We know. School meals should be better.  Our first campaign 13 years ago was called "Lunch is Gross” – where RCSD students in a 4th grade classroom headed to the School Board and demanded changes. Those kids were successful. They solidified better food standards before the federal government made their move in 2008, and even secured more dollars for Food Services. Since then we have continued to work alongside youth and families since then to drive better school meals piloting new strategies, and advocating for change.

Fourth Grade Rochester City School Districts Protesting the state of School Meals in 2008 

School meals are important – kids can’t learn or grow appropriately without proper nutrition. When so many of our children rely solely on meals provided at school, it’s essential that we are ensuring that our kids, just like others in our surrounding suburban districts, have access to high quality, healthy meals and beverages that they enjoy and want to eat.

Unfortunately, the pathway to nutritious high-quality meals isn't easy. Just like most complicated systems that don't center kids and families, the answers aren't simple. School meals are part of a  complex systems with local, state and federal regulations/practices. COVID-19 has exposed so many problems and inequities. We must address the problems of today, but we must also think about why we were set up for failure. The real change we need is going to mean rethinking systems that existed long before the pandemic.

That’s why over the next few weeks our team will be sharing out on social media and in our blog some key resources around school meals that can support the advocacy of youth and families in the district.

For today, we’re going to start with sharing more about what you need to know as a community member if you’re looking to support students in schools by purchasing snacks.

A Primer on Smart Snacks:

In the last few days we’ve been noticing more teachers, families and folks across the City of Rochester share that they want to supplement what’s being offered by food service by purchasing some snacks for kids. This is why our Rochester community is so amazing. When systems let our families down, our community steps in. We know this isn’t easy, especially during a pandemic, to just make it happen for the kiddos.  So here are some tips on how you can do this, while also ensuring our kids have high quality and healthy foods.

There are laws that must be followed when serving food in schools:  

There are federal meal standards for ALL food and beverages served within the school day. This includes meals, snacks, celebrations, and fundraisers. These standards set targets on fat, sugar, sodium and calorie content. The standards set the basic requirements. If local authorities want to make even stronger nutrition guidelines for their schools, they can do so. 

When community members, staff, or primary caregivers are bringing food into the building for kids during or after the school day we are required to follow these guidelines.

Is RCSD meeting the standards?

To receive reimbursement from the federal government, the Rochester City School District must follow these rules. They are audited annually by New York State Department of Education, and their nutritionist works alongside procurement to purchase items in line with these standards. While the pictures that are circulating are disappointing, they unfortunately do follow the minimum standards.

We know our kids deserve better, and there’s examples of districts across the country with similar challenges to ours that have committed to doing better. But we will discuss some of that in the coming weeks on social media and in our next blog post.

Over the last ten years, we have partnered with families and youth to make significant changes to the RCSD wellness policy. As you’re pushing the district to do better. Here’s some clauses directly in our wellness policy that you can that you can reference:

  1. 5405.30: Nutrition standards for school meals: highlights all of the specific nutrition standards for school meals
  2. 5405.40: Guidelines for sale and food items outside of school mealshighlights all of the standards around what's allowable outside of the school meal program 


What are smart snacks?

“Smart Snacks” are snacks that align with the federal nutrition standards. The smart snack standards result in healthier snacks being offered to students across the country. The intention of these standards was to ensure the food outside of school meals, such as snacks in vending machines, fundraisers, snacks, all met minimum federal nutritional standards. Back when the standards first changed, we saw a lot of creative ways these standards were being implemented in schools.

Unfortunately – the food industry quickly caught up. Now in schools, when you see “Doritos” or “Pop Tarts” they aren’t the same as the ones that you find in the grocery store or corner store. These “lookalike foods” or “copycat snacks” have been reformulated by the food companies to meet the  Smart Snack nutrition standards. These lookalike snacks give kids misleading and mixed messages.  The healthier versions are not available to purchase outside of schools, and often look identical to the junk food that kids see in the store. But that in and of itself is a whole other topic we won’t dive into the weeds on today.

Still, the Smart Snack standards can be used to help guide what we make available to students. Some standards are better than none! 

Kids have shared with us during our lunch observations they want to have more fruits & vegetables!

How can we ensure we’re meeting Smart Snack standards in what we purchase?

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has done a lot of this work for you already. Check out their Amazon Wish List with over 124 different items that are allowable in schools.

Their list isn’t exhaustive, so if you are purchasing pre-packaged food, we encourage you to also try out the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Smart Snack Calculator. This calculator does the work for you and will let you know if that item you’ve purchased meets the nutritional standards or not.

That all being said, we have consistently heard from kids and youth that they WANT healthier options and more FRESH fruit and vegetables. Processed food is still processed food. The standards do allow folks to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables. Take advantage of our local farmers markets and Foodlink’s Curbside Market, and bulk purchasing at grocery stores to bring in fresh fruit to our kids right now.

Always remember to follow proper food safety standards:

While you’re thinking about bringing food into the classroom and serving it to your students, remember to follow food safety standards. This year, we released an easy guide about food standards for PTO’s/A’s to support this work so be sure to check it out: http://bit.ly/foodsafetyguidelines

Some overall resources on Smart Snacks:


Tune in tomorrow as we dive deeper into the broader discussion of “what’s the future of school meals,  where are the advocacy opportunities”?


In the meantime, if anyone has any questions for our team about the work we’ve done around school meals and what the opportunities are next. Please reach out to Mike Bulger at mike.bulger@commongroundhealth.org or check out our resources section on the website.

If you have specific questions about how schools have already been implementing smart snack standards? Reach out to Alicia alicia.evans@commongroundhealth.org