School food in America must go beyond the tray—and Betti Wiggins is here to change it.
Credit: Getty: Fuse

Betti Wiggins is best known for transforming Detroit’s school food service from dismal and heavily processed to colorful and locally grown. Now this rebel lunch lady is showing 214,000 Houston children how food is more than what’s on the plate.

Most people have clear memories of school food from their childhood. What was your favorite school lunch growing up?

I liked Miss Spragg’s pizza. It was homemade. She made her own yeast dough. You would come into the school, and you could smell it. 

In Detroit schools, you eliminated junk food, started serving more local foods, and instituted school gardening programs.

When I arrived in 2008, I wrote a counterproposal to a food service management company, and one of the things I had promised the board of education was that if they returned us to self-operation, I would improve the quality of the food on the kids’ trays. Those dollars that they spent for management fees would instead go to kids’ tummies. 

How did you pull it off?

I’ll tell you right now, I did not do it by myself. The USDA and the Institute of Medicine helped a lot when they put in new nutrition standards not long after I got there, and what Michelle Obama was doing to focus on child nutrition helped a great deal. I had a relationship with a food bank in Detroit. I sat on a policy council. I partnered with Michigan State University on a master gardener program. Even my senator, Debbie Stabenow, did a lot of good in terms of focusing on the farmers and making fresh fruits and vegetables more available to schools.

At my son’s school, when the lunchroom started using more whole grains and ethnic-influenced foods, the parents complained their kids wouldn’t eat. How do you convince parents that kids will adapt?

I tell parents: “Here’s the standards. This is my table, and this is what these kids are going to eat when they’re in my house. It’s going to be whole-grain. It’s not going to be iceberg lettuce. I’m going to teach your kid about diversity simply by what I put on their tray.” So Hispanic kids eat black-eyed peas, and black kids are eating pupusas. I get them from 4 years old until they’re 17, and I can have an impact on their eating habits and the choices they make.

Chocolate milk is surprisingly contentious.

In Detroit, I took it off the menu. I thought it was a candy bar. In Houston I have to go a little slow because I got pushback in Michigan from the milk producers. When we took it off the menu, it represented 14% of the chocolate milk purchases for the entire state. So it became economics. Here in Houston, I’m going to canvass the parents. If more than 50% say we should not have chocolate milk on the menu, we’re not going to have it. Then it’s something our parents want to do, not something I’m inflicting on them.

How else is your approach changing now that you’re in Houston?

One thing that surprised me about Houston—it’s the biggest, richest, poorest city I’ve ever been in. You can walk two miles, and you’ve got wealth, and activism, and engaged parents, and high-performing schools. Then you go down the road, not far, and you have some of the poorest, neediest people.

Because they already have school gardens here, I’m trying to make my kids understand where the food comes from and therefore become better consumers. I’m trying to teach about making choices and giving the kids the skills they’ll need to navigate the very complex food system that we have in this country. I want to make sure my child nutrition program is appropriate for not only feeding, but also for learning.

What lessons do you think schools elsewhere can take from what you’ve been doing?

If you really want to improve, what you’re doing with kids has to go beyond the tray. Those little extra, added things, like school gardens and summer youth programs, help to build the community. 

If you were in charge of a nationwide school food system, what’s the first thing you’d do?

Universal feeding for all children. Just like with the G.I. Bill and all those other things that people determined we did have the money for, we need to determine that we do have the money to feed our children.

Do you eat school lunch yourself?

When I go to a school, I eat school lunch. If I can’t eat it, how can I ask the kids to eat it? 

And when you come home exhausted, what’s your go-to quick and easy dinner?

A salad and boiled eggs. I always have some kind of greens on hand, like spinach.

How do you define healthy?

Healthy is being in a safe environment, a clean environment. It’s about having good food that is simple, wholesome, accessible, and thoughtfully prepared.