Interviews / August 16, 2012

Diet Detective Interview with School Lunch Advocate Dr. Janet Poppendieck: The “How,” “What” and “Why” of School Lunch (Part 2)

By Charles Platkin, PhD

This is the second of a two–part interview focusing on the problems and some solutions for school lunch.

Diet Detective: How can one person make a difference and change school food at their children’s school?

Janet Poppendieck: Well, one person cannot really do it alone; this is a classic example of a situation that requires organizing. One person can start the process, however. If you are a parent, the first step is to inform yourself about what is really going on in your child’s school lunchroom. Visit the school at mealtime several times. Then talk to other parents, and talk to students.

Organize a committee of the PTA, or join a wellness committee if one exists, and if appropriate, encourage students to organize a parallel committee or join yours. The 2004 Child Nutrition legislation required each school district to convene a wellness committee, but in many communities, these committees were created at the local school level as well. Once you have a sense of parents’ and students’ concerns, meet with the food–service manager and ask her what parents can do to help.

In some schools salad bar equipment goes unused because there are not enough adults in the cafeteria to guide the children in using the bar. In some schools parental influence could result in a more realistic schedule for lunch. The point is to start by building a relationship, and then you can move on to your demands.

Typically, however, you may find that your major concerns cannot be resolved at the level of the individual school. The cafeteria manager often does not have the authority to make the changes you want to see. You need to move up the ladder to the school district’s food–service director. When you do this, be sure to keep your local school cafeteria manager in the loop. If possible, you want to go with her, not over her head.

Working with food–service directors needs to begin with respect for their time and appreciation for their constraints. Food–service directors often oversee large budgets, numerous staff members and multiple building sites. They have to comply with extensive regulations, and they have limited resources.

I was moved by the frustration of a major city director who told me that in the three years previous to our interview, four different groups had come to see her about farm–to–cafeteria projects. Each group had several lengthy meetings with her, after which she provided information in writing. In each case, when they discovered how laborious and time7ndash;consuming a farm–to–cafeteria program would actually be, the group faded away. I’m not saying don’t go to her with a vision for better food; I’m just saying, inform yourself first.

At the risk of sounding self–serving, reading Free for All is a good place to begin. There are also several blogs that contain a great deal of information: Ed Bruske’s blog, The Slow Cook, contains great information based on his experiences with school food reform in Washington, D.C. Bettina Elias Siegel, a parent, a writer and a school food activist in Texas, has created a terrific blog called The Lunch Tray. You can also learn from “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper through her website:, and from Mrs. Q, the undercover agent of school food change at These will undoubtedly lead you to others.

Eventually, you may find that the food–service director is not your ally. There have been cases where the most important thing parents could do to improve school food was to lobby for replacement of the food–service director. But that should not be your starting point. For food–service operations, participation rates, called adp, or average daily participation, are the main metric. As participation rises, the unit cost of providing the meal goes down and resources are freed to provide better food. If you and your group can help to increase participation, you will generally elicit cooperation and, eventually, a true alliance.

If your principal and your food–service director agree, try listing your school on the website of Chefs Move to Schools (; you may find yourself adopted by a chef who wants to help you make a difference.

Finally, there are people trying to improve school food in cities and towns across the United States. Contact the food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture to get a copy of Making It Happen! School Nutrition Success Stories. Check for resources online at the Food Security Learning Center of, or contact the Community Food Security Coalition or the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They can help you connect with other people who can tell you how they went about making a difference. Or contact Better School Food.

These sources will also alert you when there is crucial legislation pending before Congress. Child Nutrition Reauthorization will not take place again for another five years, but there will be important decisions in the Farm Bill in 2012, and in any case, we will need plenty of time to build a movement to secure the resources school food programs need to do the job right. Now is the time to begin agitating for universal free school meals prepared from fresh, healthy, sustainably raised ingredients.

Diet Detective: Are there any school programs that are particularly commendable (and why)?

Janet Poppendieck: There are exemplary programs that can give us all hope and point the way, and there are huge variations in local circumstances that make some of these programs very difficult to replicate. Some of my favorite innovations, pioneered in small schools, may not be feasible in large systems, but we have ample evidence that large systems can change for the better. In my all–time favorite school lunch program, the fifth–graders at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, Calif., prepare and serve the school lunch. There are 20 of them, and they are divided into five teams of four, one for each day of the week.

They plan the menu, find the recipes, do the math to scale up to the number of children who will be eating, and prepare and serve the food under the direction of a combination teacher/school food service director. The fourth–graders set the tables on the school’s sunny, pleasant, glassed–in porch with checkered table cloths and flowers from the school garden. Need I explain why we cannot implement this program in the 1,600 schools serving 860,000 meals a day in New York City?

I think we also need to be willing to learn from other countries. One reason I am convinced that universal free school meals will work so much better than the current means–tested system is that I saw it in Sweden where I visited half a dozen schools. It was lunchtime. Children and teachers walked into the lunchroom. They helped themselves from a buffet or were served by a staff member. There was no cashier, because no one was paying. Nothing was for sale. No one displayed cash, and no one felt ashamed because she had no cash to display. They took their lunches to tables in the generally cheerful, well–lighted dining halls decorated with growing plants and children’s art, and sat down and ate.

Diet Detective: Clearly, the school lunchroom is not the only problem. Can you talk about “competitive foods” both inside and outside the school?

Janet Poppendieck: Inside the cafeteria but outside the official school lunch are the a la carte items [discussed in Part I of the interview], but there are also problems outside the cafeteria. Competitive foods outside the school ­ corner stores on the school perimeter, fast–food restaurants up the block ­ are a huge problem. Part of the reason I am convinced that we could accomplish more with a universal free program is because then children would really not need to carry money to school, and thus the likelihood of their diverting their lunch money to a bag of chips ­ at the corner store or from a vending machine in the hall ­would diminish.

The other component of competitive foods, of course, is the variety of food sold outside the cafeteria but inside the school: in vending machines, school stores and sometimes through PTA or booster club food sales. For years, these foods have been subject only to token limitations. While the reimbursable meal struggled to meet nutrition targets, schools were free to sell all manner of junk in competition. Some school principals derive virtually all their discretionary funds from vending machines.

The new legislation just passed by Congress gives the secretary of Agriculture, at last, the authority to impose nutrition standards on these foods. This is sure to be a hotly contested regulatory process, with food manufacturers and school principals raising alarms about the “nanny state” and arguing that children need choices in order to learn self-control, some nutrition activists supplying lists of “healthier” snacks, and others seeking the removal of the vending machines altogether.

Again, some extraordinarily creative people have turned their attention to options for healthy fundraising, selling fresh fruit or environmentally friendly products instead of candy to raise money, and a very few sane voices have been asking why we don’t fund our schools well enough so that constant fundraising does not compete with academic excellence for the attention of school administrators and concerned parents.

Diet Detective: Tell us one secret to getting along with the Lunch Lady?

Janet Poppendieck: I think the “secret” is respect. These people generally work very hard. I started my research with a week volunteering in a school cafeteria, and I was exhausted by the end of each day. I have literally never worked so hard in my life. In general, I think program evaluation often overlooks a crucial source of information and insight.

We study the regulations and we study the “clients” or “consumers,” but we seldom study the people who carry out the programs on a day–to–day basis, yet they have huge quantities of information and important insights. And one of the insights that came across to me most forcefully was that lunchroom personnel often feel ignored, excluded and “dissed” by the school administration, and unseen by the students.

“You don’t have legs,” one worker said to me. “You stand behind the steam table, and you don’t have legs.” She meant that the students never see her as a whole person ­ they see only the part of her that is dishing out food.

Principals are notorious for viewing the cafeteria as a sort of “black box.” Students go in one end and come out the other end fed, and the principal doesn’t really want to have anything to do with what goes on inside. In too many schools, the food–service staff members are treated more as servants than as educators, though they are in a crucial position to help students develop constructive social practices as well as healthy food habits.

I do not think we will really heal school food in America until we can turn our cafeterias into places of civility, where both students and staff are treated with respect.

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