In the past four years, school meals in Detroit have been transformed. Gone are the chicken nuggets and sugary drinks. Now school cafeterias serve fresh fruit and mixed baby green salads, lean meat, low-fat milk, and whole grain breads. Better yet, some even serve produce from school gardens and local farmers.
The change hasn’t occurred overnight. The Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition, which serves breakfast and lunch to more than 55,000 kids in 141 schools, has worked hard to create such a dramatic nutritional turnaround. And much of the credit goes to the office’s executive director, Betti Wiggins.
In 2008, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) was outsourcing its food service program. But the staff union had the foresight to hire Wiggins to propose bringing it back in-house. Her background as chief of nutrition for the District of Columbia and as a food services director in three other states, came in handy, and the district was convinced she was the one to turn things around.
Right off the bat Wiggins did away with the outside food management company, which allowed her to more than double the size of the food budget. (Before Wiggins came on board, DPS was spending 23 percent of its budget on food; it’s now 51 percent). The change in the quality was dramatic.
“One of the first things we did was turn the deep fryers off,” Wiggins says. “There are certain foods I don’t think we should be serving in schools. I don’t serve hot dogs and corn dogs; I think that’s carnival food.”
Next she increased the servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Once a week the students are introduced to a new raw vegetable. If they don’t like the jicama, sugar snap peas, or asparagus the first time, it doesn’t matter. As long as Wiggins continues to put new food on their plates, the kids will eventually eat them. Since 2009, the students have also been eating brown rice and enjoying Meatless Mondays with hummus, eggs or cheese.