Detroit's public schools built an award-winning lunch program that activists are fighting to save

The scene on school lunch trays across the country is usually pretty grim. Fluorescent gray gravy is slopped over processed meat that's all plopped next to a glob of no-name brand instant mash potatoes holding the health and flavor profile of wet construction paper. Weird chicken nuggets are washed down with low-grade, sugar-packed chocolate milk, and pizza is a generous description for what passes as such.

That is, unless you're lucky enough to eat lunch in Detroit Public Schools' cafeterias. There you'll find whole, lean muscle meat that's served with vegetables like yellow squash pulled from small gardens outside the district's schools, or from local Michigan growers. The pizza is made with a whole grain crust, and the menu is varied and interesting.

With all that's wrong with DPS, it's surprising to learn that the district's school lunch program is among the nation's most progressive and nutritious. Its cafeterias are considered the standard for large public schools, and DPS received worldwide recognition for the program. Among its accolades are the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association's 2017 Silver Plate Award; inclusion in the School Nutrition Foundation's 2017 class of School Nutrition Heroes; the 2017 FAME Golden School FoodService Director of the Year award; and FoodService Director magazine's 2017 Foodservice Director of the Year.

However, the DPS lunch program could be in jeopardy. Its former executive director of the Office of School Nutrition, Betti Wiggins, built up the program over the last 10 years, but recently left for a position with the Houston Independent School District. With Wiggins gone, local food activists are doing what they can to ensure that her progress and the district's nutrition program continue.

"While there are so many things going wrong with the schools, we have this award winning — not just nationally, but internationally — wonderful program, assembled with a great staff that didn't get a lot of attention," says Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council. "So we want to make sure the district doesn't abandon it."

It's known that decent, nutritious meals play an important role in kids' development, and it's up to DPS' kitchens to ensure that's happening in Detroit. District cooks prepare more than 80,000 meals across 121 schools daily, including those that are part of the year-round universal free breakfast and lunch programs, as well as a few dinners. For many kids, the majority of their daily calorie count comes from DPS-prepared meals.

Aside from making sure that means kids get whole ingredients, Wiggins also worked to remove what nutritionists refer to as "The Harmful Seven" from DPS' kitchens: Trans fat and hydrogenated oils; processed and artificial sweeteners; high fructose corn syrup; hormones and antibiotics; artificial colors and flavors; artificial preservatives; and bleached flours.

A common lunch children ate in March included roasted chicken with maple sweet potatoes, a harvest salad, mini waffles, an apple, and, for those who don't eat meat or need a halal meal, lentils and rice. Breakfast options include yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, real eggs, Eggo waffles, or breakfast burritos. Meatless Mondays and Fridays are a chance for kids to get acquainted with dishes like hummus, vegetarian chili, or pasta alfredo.

Wiggins built the program out of the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which dictated health and nutrition guidelines for school kids. (Congress failed to re-authorize it in 2015.) While nutrition is an important part of the equation, Wiggins also implemented the program in what Bynum describes as "a culturally responsible" way.

"She looked at the background of the kids in the district and tried to make sure some of the things they were used to eating at home were reflected in a healthy way in the lunches," Bynum says. "An example: We have some kids whose family background may be Middle Eastern, so she included hummus as one of the options she offered. It was inclusive while being a new exposure for some kids, but a healthy option for all."

Wiggins also tied the lunch program to the district's STEM curriculum. Most of the district's schools hold a garden in which fresh veggies like zucchini and tomatoes are grown, and kids learn about the science of agriculture as they take part in planting and growing the food. The 32-square-foot beds are made by students with physical and cognitive disabilities at the Drew Transition Center. Altogether, there a 76 gardens and two hoop houses on DPS campuses, larger farms at Drew and Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School, and the vegetables are washed and processed in DPS.

"Children get to see how science plays into it and make that connection," Bynum says. "They ... get a real life example and they really live what they're learning."

Of course, certain politicians will squeal about the horrors of children eating anything more than dirt if it costs much extra, but the efficiency of Wiggins' streamlined program is part of its success. Bynum says the improved meals haven't come at much — if any — extra cost to the district when looked at on a cost-per-dish basis. Wiggins was savvy enough to seek philanthropic support through partners like Lifetime Fitness, for example, and find grant funding to build the hoop houses.

"She really always talks about how she's able to run the program efficiently and always had it in the black," Bynum says. "She was always looking for ways to work it on a tight budget and to figure out how to run it to where it paid for itself. She negotiated with farmers (like Keep Growing Detroit) and did a lot of hard work and made an effort to make sure it was well run."

Those in the food community describe Wiggins as an asset, but, as such, she is in demand, and Houston's district recently poached her. Though Bynum said the district seems interested in keeping the nutrition program in place, and an interim director was installed to cover the transition, it takes the right kind of person with the drive and knowledge to keep the program running right.

The Food Policy Council and other groups like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network are working with the district and community to ensure that person is found.

"The main thing I want people to know is what has been going on for the last 10 years in the school system," she tells MT. "Even in all the turmoil, (Wiggins) has been able to keep the progress going and keep providing good food for our kids ... and that's something the children deserve.

"This has been going so well that we can't go back. That's not fair to the kids, and that's not fair to the community."

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