When I was a child, I felt it was important to bring a really good lunch to school—and I did, every day. I think that is part of what led me to enjoy being a chef. I would share my lunch with friends, and I enjoyed seeing their excitement tasting the foods I had brought in. But my passion for trying to advocate for better school lunch foods truly started after we moved back to Dexter and my son brought me to “Bring Your Dad to Lunch Day” at the high school. In the cafeteria, we walked up to the buffet, and I found that the only thing I would really eat and put in my body was the pre-cut bagged iceberg lettuce and the sad looking ranch dressing. Highly processed ham and sweet potatoes didn’t seem like what I should put in my body.
I began to think about what I might be able to do to impact school lunches. I spent the next four or five years interacting as much as I could with Dexter, Chelsea, and Ann Arbor schools. I got involved in the farm-to-school programs and interfaced with Dexter schools through teachers I personally knew or who knew my family. The schools were kind enough to allow me to come cook a few times each year, and I did some presentations on the importance of farming and eating local. One of our friends in the area is the principal of a local elementary school, and for about four years in a row, we’ve brought the entire school out to the farm for a very hands-on learning experience.
Changing large policy in this country is an uphill battle, one I am passionate about, but I have found I could be more effective by talking directly to students and children about what I believe makes wholesome food. Having children of my own and knowing how they react to being told to do something, I know just telling children to eat healthy isn’t a quick win. Trying to educate them on what makes food healthful, what makes a body healthy, and how to make their diets diverse—that is where I could have impactful change.
I recognize that kids go through phases and in third grade may only eat pasta and hot dogs, but at some point, with education and opportunity, all children can make good food decisions on their own. I truly believe that. To be sure, not all children in this country get the opportunity to make the right choice, whether because of lack of income, lack of recognition by the parents or school, or lack of convenience or time.
My passion for educating children led to my work with the Chef Action Network (CAN), which began as part of the James Beard Foundation. The folks at the CAN have done incredibly great work that I have been fortunate enough to be part of. We have lobbied numerous times for the reauthorization of Child Nutrition Act to maintain school lunch standards or increase them, which has been a several-years process to reduce salts and sugars in the highly processed foods that are fed to our children. We are working hard to keep servings of fresh fruits and vegetables as a mandatory part of public school lunches across the nation. We have lobbied for the reduction or control of the overuse of antibiotics in our animal agriculture systems in this country. We have also lobbied for the labeling of GMOs in our country’s food.
The true cost of our food, and feeding our children and young adults processed foods, are paid back later in life with diabetes, obesity and the skyrocketing cost of healthcare in this country. So taking the fight to the children and trying to educate is just one of many things that needs to happen. Additionally, if we continue to wrap up good policies in the farm bill with bad policies, we will not have meaningful change in this country. We have to unwind the ability of lobbyists and corporate agriculture to serve only their own interests at the detriment of our country’s health.
How can people in the Ann Arbor show support?
To help with childhood hunger, Share our Strength is a good organization. Based in DC, and very well run, they’re fighting against childhood hunger. In terms of agricultural policies, the Chef Action Network is doing great work.
If I am a parent sending my child to local schools, what can I do to make a change?
If you are a parent or a resident of the area, and you want to make a change to how we feed our students, it is simple to get involved. We may not be able to control policy as quickly as we’d like, but we can control where we spend our money, including not buying over-processed foods. American business is smart, and they will choose to produce the foods we demand as a country. As more people choose to buy good food, less crappy food will be produced. Where you buy your food (especially meat) is really important along with how you educate your family on what foods are available and actually preparing them at home.
We spend on average less than 15 minutes preparing food for our families. We often shop for convenience foods, and as a result, we are losing the small stores and corner stores.
When people lose hope, sad things happen. A place without hope is not a place I want to live or raise my children. I encourage everyone to keep hope, keep pushing, and keep fighting for something better: more nutritious food that’s responsibly produced and available for all!