What is a School Food Advocate?

What is a School Food Advocate? 

I was called for jury duty recently. Happy to fulfill my civic responsibility, I packed up a sandwich for lunch, and a good book, and went down to the courthouse to await the inevitable; I knew I would be dismissed. Lawyers never want me on their jury, despite the fact that they should. I can make their job easier, because all they have to do is convince me that their side should prevail. No matter what the other jurors’ opinions are going into deliberations, I can pretty much guarantee that, by the end, they are all going to think the way I do.

Who am I, that I wield such power? I am a school food advocate.

One of the lawyers in the case to which I was assigned asked me what a school food advocate is. I explained that my job, much like his, is to take a position and then convince the world that my position is right. If you are aware that school food in my school district (San Francisco) is not the usual crap of corn dogs, french fries and canned fruit cocktail, but rather whole grains, fresh fruit and salad bars, you probably learned it from me. You certainly didn't hear about it from the school district itself, which has no one working on promoting the positive changes that have been made to school lunchrooms over the past decade. You didn't learn it from the media, because they are more interested in school food “miracle workers” than in the slow but steady slog towards better nutrition which has characterized San Francisco's journey.

Of course, it is understandable that many school districts, especially in California, don't have the manpower to focus on promoting nutritional improvements; instead, they must focus their rapidly dwindling resources on, you know, teaching the kids. The job of getting the word out to students and families that school food is healthy, convenient and affordable, and in many cases better than what kids bring from home, often falls to volunteers like me.

Bettina Elias Siegel is a Houston mom; she blogs about “kids and food, in school and out” at The Lunch Tray. School food reform has been one of her go-to topics since launching the blog in May 2010. She says:

“I see my role as working to improve the healthfulness and quality of the food offered to our students, but always while keeping in mind the legitimate constraints on our food services department. It's easy to storm in to someone's office and demand organic, local and scratch cooked meals, but you'll quickly be dismissed as a dilettante with no clue about how school food operations work, the budget constraints on districts, the costs of labor, the limitations of existing facilities, and other obstacles to that ideal. So it's always a balancing act: looking for changes that can reasonably be accomplished and then pushing hard to achieve them.”

Some people are paid to advocate for better school food. Sunny Young is a member of the Food Family Farming Foundation, establish by renegade lunch lady Chef Ann Cooper, to help schools transition from serving junk food to healthy food. Sunny’s job includes doing research, administering grants, and using social media to get the Foundation's message out. She began working with Cooper after being inspired by hearing her speak in Boulder. Initially she worked as a volunteer, but was able to apply for grants to make her position a paid one.

She says: “A school food advocate should listen and learn from those that have been doing school food jobs for a long time. Often folks come in with a know-it-all attitude and feeling that way will get you nowhere. Figuring out what is important to the people already running food services programs and then coming up with changes together is the only way to create sustainable change. Then bring your enthusiasm! If you are ready to work your butt off to see healthier kids, more people will be on your side.”

Some of the most effective school food advocates are school board members. It was San Francisco's longest-serving school board member, Jill Wynns, who jump started the movement here when she co-authored the 2003 Healthy School Nutrition and Physical Exercise Policy for SFUSD.

More recently, SF Board of Education member Rachel Norton has embraced school nutrition as a vital issue, and is calling for SFUSD to lead a major school food initiative. On her website, she describes her leadership in this area, including co-authoring the 2009 Feeding Every Hungry Child resolution with Commissioner Wynns. The purpose of the resolution was to make sure that all children in line for school meals get fed, regardless of ability to pay, but also to push schools to do a better job of collecting completed meal applications from all students, so that every student eligible for government subsidy qualifies for it.

She writes: “For years, SNS Director Ed Wilkins and other concerned stakeholders working on school food have tried to find funding for initiatives like more SNS staff, an expanded breakfast program, and more choices for lunch.... However, in today’s budget environment, implementing any of this is a tall order....[but] based on the longtime advocacy for these projects by SNS staff and the Food and Fitness Committee, the interest from our new Superintendent, Richard Carranza, and the overall interest in improving school food that I see in the broader community, I think the time is ripe for the district to lead a major initiative on student nutrition.”

How does a school food reformer make change? Each one has her own favorite tool; for Bettina Siegel, it's showing clout: “There is always power in numbers, so instead of being a solo operator it's far better to get other parents and community members behind you for more clout. I also think you need to assess how sympathetic your school board members are to improved food, as you will ultimately need board support if more money or new management is needed to change what you want to change. And working with your school or district's official Wellness Policy oversight committee is important, too, as the district's Wellness Policy can have an impact on what's served in the lunch room.”

Sunny Young believes social media marketing is a must have for anyone with a message to promote, and says it is a great way to find out who your followers are and what their interests are. Her advice to would-be reformers:

“My single most powerful tool as an advocate is my energy for the topic. It is easy to get stuck in habits in most fields of work, and school food is no exception. If you have been doing the same thing for a number of years, you get into protocols and ways of doing things that are hard to break out of. When you are able to be excited about change, it makes the whole process smoother and worth it to all involved. I would also re-iterate here that listening is the ultimate tool. You have to listen to be able understand and you have to understand in order to see change.”

My own favorite tool is relentlessness. As my essay Everybody's Guide to Fixing School Food explains: “You have to make the decision going in that, no matter what, you will never, ever, ever give up until you attain your goal...Change is hard for a bureaucracy, and good bureaucrats always want to do what is easiest; that's usually just doing what they have always done. You must make these folks realize that you are not going to give up and go away, that you are going to keep coming at them , and that each time you do, you have more people behind you. Eventually they will realize that it is easier to just give you what you want, rather than continue to do what they have always done while trying to fight you off, and at that point, you will prevail.”

In her book Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, Hunter College Professor of Sociology Janet Poppendieck mentions a small but important event in her transition from researcher to school food reform advocate. She describes a day when she returned to teach a class after an out of town trip researching school cafeterias; her students saw her suitcase, and asked where she had been, and what she had been doing.

I had barely started to describe my research in school food when one of my students interrupted. She straightened her shoulders, drew herself up to her full height, and sniffed, "I don't know why they don't just feed them healthier food; it wouldn't have to cost more."As I began to explain some of the complexities and barriers, I was struck by an echo of my own voice; her pronouncement sounded a lot like my thoughts when I began this project, a lot like what many people assume.

Much of what a school food advocate does is work with the local schools to find ways to serve healthier food; we also try to answer parents' questions about how the meal program operates, and encourage them to get involved. But we also deal with people like the student Poppendieck describes, who keep popping up to announce that schools should “just” do this or that one thing, which would be easy and inexpensive, and then all of the problems with school food will magically be fixed. The school food advocate must explain to these folks, in terms which they can easily understand, why the solutions are rarely that simple; what the complexities of the issue are (again, making the complex simple so that anyone can grasp it); and finally, what the real solutions are, and what it will take to achieve them.

My persuasive skills have been honed to a fine edge through years of educating people who, like Poppendieck's student, know nothing about how school food works, but think they are qualified to come up with quick fix solutions. I don't expect everyone to like me, but I insist that they hear me out. I never back down from a fight and I never ever, ever give up until I have attained my goal, and so apparently I am not suitable for jury service. 

I am a school food advocate.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.