My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
For the past 15 years, I’ve worked as a federal contractor supporting a government survey Several years ago, for example, I spent half a day listening to Kentucky educators explain how they connected local farmers and schools to improve school lunches. Local farmers also helped build functional school gardens. The end result was a true farm-to-table operation. Kentucky school children were eating just like the hipsters on the Food Network.
And so when a small group of Montgomery County Public Schools parents started advocating for “real” food, I paid attention. Was farm-to-table coming to MCPS?
Led by Lindsey Parsons and Karen Devitt, Real Food for Kids – Montgomery (RFKM) was formed in 2012.
In less than two years, RFKM has grown from a handful of supporters to over 3,900 countywide. There have been a few initial food fight victories for RFKM and the group has earned support from some on the County Council. For RFKM, the stars are lining up for great things to happen.
And so with RFKM now firmly on the radar, I decided to spend a little time with Devitt, allowing her to reflect on where she thinks RFKM is headed.
Joseph Hawkins: Beyond the data (the numbers of overweight of obese children, for instance) what single thing motivated you to form RFKM more than anything else?
Karen Devitt: What motivated me was seeing the kinds of food offered to my daughter in school. When I was growing up, “junk food” (food with minimum nutritional value) was reserved for parties or special occasions. A visit to Lily’s MCPS middle school cafeteria three years ago was the tipping point after years of frustration. The checkout line resembled the local 7-Eleven. At the cash register were chips, sugary beverages, cookies, ice cream, Rice Krispie treats, French fries, gummy candies. I realized at that point that I had to do something.
The disconnect between what we know to be good for our kids and what is available in the school environment is very troubling. School administrators have really abdicated their responsibility in this regard. While MCPS abides by USDA regulations for school food, these regulations are an absolute minimum. MCPS has not kept pace with other school districts with more political will to clean up.
I believe, as do many of my colleagues, that what a child puts in their body is as important as what they put in their mind. We don’t allow our kids to visit porn sites, browse hate literature, or view posters of violent crimes while they’re in school. But the unhealthy food and food marketing in schools are just as harmful. A terrible disservice is being done to our kids.
Hawkins: RFKM formally came together in late 2012. In a little more than two years, you’ve been able to gather support from over 3,900 individuals. How did you accomplish such support in a rather short time period?
Devitt: We have done a lot of organizing via school listservs, so that once we found one parent at a school, we asked them to send an email to their school listserv, and that attracted other parents. We also got a big boost when we circulated our petition at the end of the last school year. And we have sat at tables at fairs, festivals and farmers markets and presented to PTAs at many schools.
When parents see us at those places, they immediately relate to and agree with our message. This is the largest school system in the state, nationally ranked and a leader in so many ways, but parents are alarmed when they see the reality of school food. MCPS has a very educated, activist parent population who care passionately about this issue. Once people become aware of what is actually being served and sold in the school, it motivates them to help bring about a change.
Plus it doesn’t hurt that there is a very vocal national conversation around this issue, with the crisis of childhood obesity, Michelle Obama’s leadership and the recent federal changes to school food brought about through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Hawkins: You have had a fair amount of early success in placing in each MCPS school a RFKM parent representative. What exactly do these parents do?
Devitt: Our parent supporters pass information on to the PTAs and other school parents for us. The role of the school rep is a bit larger. They advocate at the school level for better food options in the cafeteria and vending machines by meeting with the principal and cafeteria manager.
Some of our reps start wellness committees and conduct a survey of parents to find out their priorities. Most parents don’t have time to visit the cafeteria, so the school reps help raise awareness through presentations and other forms of outreach. We provide data to our reps on all the school food, especially with regard to a la carte offerings not included on the menus and nutrition facts and ingredients. We also provide training and resource materials to our reps, such as healthy party plans and ideas for fundraising that don’t involve food.
Through our reps, we also try to empower our parents to speak up when their nutritional choices are being undermined at school, such as when teachers reward children with candy in the classroom or chocolate milk is given to their child at breakfast without their knowledge.
Hawkins: What does “real food” mean? What are some of the challenges in providing school children with “real food?”
Devitt: What I’ve learned in my research is that the most important fact about any food is not its nutrient content but its degree of processing. In his book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan wrote: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
For our supporters, real food is food that they might serve for dinner at their homes. And most parents don’t serve their kids a rotating menu consisting almost exclusively of pizza, burgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and pancakes or waffles for lunch. Almost all of the food served in MCPS is processed food that’s simply distributed to schools and heated there.
Of course, in a school system the size of MCPS, there are real tradeoffs that have to do with efficiency and cost. But other school systems have done more with cooking real food, both on site in the schools and in a central facility.
We brought Tony “Cafeteria Man” Geraci (formerly of Baltimore City Public Schools, now in Memphis, Tennessee) in to speak at our School Food Forum in 2012 because we wanted to show an example of someone who was not only making much of his food fresh, but also making a profit doing so. It takes a chef and a savvy business person to succeed at this business, because school food is a business that must function off its own profits, and the kids are customers.
And kids can taste the difference between chemical-laden, processed, reheated food, and good, fresh, real food. But it’s a real paradigm shift to start making fresh food, and it requires investments in equipment and training and more than anything, the will power at the grassroots and at the administration level to take the chance. We’re bringing the grassroots will. Now it’s time for the administration and Board of Education to take a leap of faith and push for something better and trust that we’ll have their backs.
Hawkins: Not that long ago, I caught a Board of Education discussion about vending machines in our schools. Apparently, there are policies in place that require vending machines to be turned off during normal school hours. I assume that this policy prevents some unhealthy snack foods and drinks from being sold. But does the policy prevent all unhealthy snacks from being sold?
Devitt: There are two types of vending machines in secondary schools. One type is on all the time and sells baked chips, cookies and other snacks that are at least 50 percent whole grain and no more than 35 percent sugar or fat by weight, 100 percent fruit and vegetables juices, chocolate milk, and lower-calorie beverages.
These snacks have to meet certain criteria based on MCPS’ wellness policy and state and federal regulations. Some of these snacks are also sold a la carte in cafeterias, where children can buy them using their lunch accounts and without their parents’ knowledge.
The second type of vending machine is on a timer and doesn’t come on until 30 minutes after the school day ends. The second type sells a lot of the same things but in their full-fat and non-whole grain versions, but also sells soda and candy, which are prohibited by federal regulations to be sold during the school day.
The distinction between the two types is not all that great, to my mind. These are all snack items and really have no place within a meal. And some very unhealthy items are considered OK and are available for sale during the school day, such as G2, a Gatorade/Pepsi product with two types of artificial sweeteners and artificial color (which is made from petroleum).
If the vending machines sold things like fresh fruit, hummus and pita chips, carrot sticks with ranch dressing and other items, that would be a different story. But for now, I can think of very few truly decent items available in the vending machines, except for plain bottled water and some lower-sugar, higher fiber granola bars.
Hawkins: Talk a little about some of the current proposed state legislation to improve the quality of food in public schools.
Devitt: Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition formed by RFKM and other groups, submitted seven bills for consideration this legislative session. These bills addressed issues such as transparency, access to free water, plans to reduce sugar and eliminate dangerous chemical additives, an increase in the Farm-to-School program from one to two weeks per year, more control and limits on vending and marketing and a bill requiring school districts to have standing wellness committees.
Our experience with MCPS and what our members found lacking informed the basis of these bills. These laws are important because the issues that we’re facing in MCPS are common to the entire state. Maryland could be a real leader in cleaning up school food, if only our legislators had the political will to direct school districts to do the right thing.
Hawkins: On the RFKM website, there’s an idea that comes from your annual parent survey to encourage MCPS to provide unlimited fruits and vegetables daily to students. Wouldn’t such a practice be too costly? How would it work? Are there any public school districts doing this?
Devitt: What we’re really talking about are salad bars as part of the school meal. We’d like to see every school in MCPS have a salad bar with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Studies show that as fruit and vegetable selections increase, consumption increases. And that even the youngest children learn salad bar etiquette fairly quickly. In D.C., Oyster-Adams Bilingual School offers a small salad bar to its kindergartners, so why can’t MCPS?
A number of MCPS schools have salad bars, and we’d like to see a push for more. Apparently, there is unused salad bar equipment waiting in MCPS’ central facility for principals to ask for it, but we haven’t seen any push from Food and Nutrition Services to get them to do so. And when that equipment runs out, grants are available for more salad bar equipment, and some have been donated to MCPS in the past by Whole Foods.
Hawkins: Looking to the future, 10 years out, tell me four big things that you believe RFKM will have accomplished.
Devitt: This is a hard one to answer because so much is out of our control. But we will continue to advocate strongly and work toward the following.
1. A parent-led Wellness Committee in every school that takes advantage of the resources, knowledge, and passion that parents in our community bring to these issues.
2. More scratch cooking and food preparation at the central and local school level, resulting in a school lunch menu free of chemicals and with greater variety and fewer occurrences of items such as pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and French fries.
3. Stronger district-wide policies for vending and a la carte foods, so that a la carte foods offered bring a positive nutritional contribution and are free of chemicals that cause cancer, ADHD and other health problems.
4. A superintendent, school board and administration who take these issues seriously enough to form a District-level Wellness Committee that includes parents, teachers, administrators, and health professionals and is chaired by someone not tasked with implementing its recommendations.
Ideally, this committee will work closely with the county government and a wide range of county health providers to align the MCPS food environment with best practices to ensure healthy kids, healthy families, and healthy communities. It’s all tied together.
Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.