Practical Activist Features Napa's School Food Reform Super Moms
- Bluestone Staff
- September 29, 2021
Featured image from left to right: Brandy Dreibelbis, Chef Ann Foundation; Laura Miller, Super Mom; Noel Brinkerhoff, reporter for Napa Valley Register; Katherine Jalaty, Super Mom; and Katie Aaron, Super Mom.
When you look at school food reform and the challenge to get healthy, scratch-cooking into schools, you’ll often find some unsung heroes in the background: parents. We are shining the spotlight on two mothers in the Napa Valley Unified School District who worked with Brandy Dreibelbis, of the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) to transition that school district’s food from highly processed, “heat and serve” to healthy, nutritious meals that are cooked from scratch. We had a conversation with these Napa “Super Moms:” Katie Aaron and Laura Miller to learn about what ignited their passion.
Q: Tell me how you got involved in your school food program in Napa Valley Unified School district and what the impetus was for each of you?
Katie: I was a teacher and then I became a full-time Mom and got very involved in my children’s school. The first volunteer job I had was with first graders where you help out with some basics to give the teachers a break. My son was in first grade and the school he was in probably had about 20% of the kids participating in the free lunch program. The first thing I noticed in the lunchroom was the social divide that was taking place between those that had school lunch and those that brought lunch from home. And I also noticed the high content of sugar that was in the school food that was part of the lunch program. It was probably four times the amount of sugar a kid should have in one day. And there was also so much packaging from an environmental perspective. The whole situation didn’t sit well with me and that’s when I realized that there needed to be changes. I started going to the meetings where parents can go to give feedback. I learned that Sodexo had the contract for the school. The first thing they wanted to focus on was the chocolate milk and the packaging and it was clear that was really meant to appease us. To me, it was condescending and it really made me angry.
So, I started educating myself and reading a lot of blogs and that’s when I learned about the Chef Ann Foundation and the work they were doing. From start to finish, it was an eight-year process and a lot happened along the way. I really got to know our Superintendent and started visiting other school districts. Chef Ann (herself) came to one of our food service meetings with Sodexo. Laura became friends with a Bay Area food services director who was educating us about the finances. It became clear that focusing on the finances was the way to get your school board to really look at what’s going on. So, I started talking to our county health services department and found out that Napa County had the highest obesity rate among youth in the Bay Area. So, when I got the health director on board, I put together a Food Day and we had 28 different schools participate. It was like a science fair, but all about food. We also had a panel and showed a movie. It really raised awareness and one of the individuals on the panel was a county health officer and she eventually said you have to change the food. She knew we had a problem in the community with obesity and saw the link to sugar and knew the kids on the school food program were eating 2-3 meals a day from the school food program which was largely highly processed foods with high sugar content.
When Laura became involved with her finance background, she was able to look at how other schools had changed their food programs and moved them away from the Sodexo’s of the world and how it benefited the district financially. We all know that change is hard and everyone wants to push the “easy” button, so it’s not a quick fix. Looking back now, I’d say three key things were: getting the public health department onboard, focusing on the finances and data, and showing the CFO and the Superintendent other school districts that were self-operating. There was also a bond measure that passed and one of the categories was health and wellness so we were able to identify that we needed to update our kitchens to be able to prepare and cook healthy food. We were so lucky to get Brandy and all the support of the Chef Ann Foundation to help us through the transition from “heat and serve” to “scratch-cooking.”
Laura: I have two children who are now in high school and are three years apart. My introduction to the USDA and school food started when my daughter came home one day and said, “Mommy, they have lunch at school and you have to stand in line to buy it. Can I do that?” And I said sure. So that was in kindergarten and first grade, and I allowed them to buy lunch two days a week – thinking that it was empowering for them to do it. Then, it was at the end of first grade and my daughter said: “I don’t want to buy lunch anymore.” And I said, “Okay, why? I thought it was fun and you liked it.” And both of my kids said: “Well, the food is not really good.” And, at the time, I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. I just went back to packing their lunches for them.
Photo below: Meal makeover of fish tacos with fruit and salad. One of the meals that replaced the highly processed and sugar-laden options.
Then, I had a friend who was the school food service director in another area and they were focusing on Farm to Table and scratch cooking, and it really opened my eyes. That’s when I noticed Katie posting a lot of information on Facebook about school food and we happened to be in an exercise class together and that’s when I approached her and asked her: “Do you need any help?” I started analyzing the budgets at the schools and not just the school food service department, but the general fund as well. What we found was that the relationship with Sodexo was too close to comfort…it was really like “You need us. We’re doing everything for you. It’s worth what you’re paying because we do it all.” As we dug deeper, we could see that the schools were being overcharged and then using money from the General Fund to compensate for the losses. For example, why are we financing school ladles? Why don’t we own our own ladles? That’s when the school board started listening and agreed to re-evaluate the school food program. One night at a school board meeting I asked: “How many teacher’s salaries and school programs could be saved with this money?”
Editor’s note: Here are three articles that highlight how these active parents drove the change in the school district’s food program:
Q: Why was it important for Brandy and the NOSH School Food program to be awarded the Chef Ann Foundation's Get Schools Cooking grant?
Laura: The initial impact of the Get School’s Cooking grant was that we have a national organization backing our mission of where we want to go with this program. They can’t push this off anymore…because now we have the grant money that makes it real and makes it a priority. The whole purpose of Get School’s Cooking is to help direct you to make wise financial decisions to make your school food program successful. If we didn’t have Chef Ann Foundation’s expertise and knowledge during that transition year, I don’t know what would have happened. It would have been easy for us to be dismissed. The true genuine desire to want the program to succeed was critical for us as we transitioned out of the old “heat and serve” model to scratch-cooking.
Katie: When the Chef Ann Foundation came on board, it was like we won the lottery! We got national attention and Chef Ann knew what the program was like before and what we had gone through to get here. It put the golden stamp on it. The employees needed the training and to understand the value of the program and the Chef Ann Foundation really made that possible. Once the school food employees had the training that they needed, then there was a genuine pride in what they were doing and knowing that it was important.
Brandy: That’s what is central to the work we’re doing at the Chef Ann Foundation: we want the school food programs to be sustainable and the training and resources that Get School’s Cooking grant provides is so important for the long-term success of any program.
Q: How has the NOSH program (Napa’s Operative for School Food Health) changed or evolved since its launch in 2018?
Katie: The biggest change has been in our elementary schools: from our new kitchens to the salad bars with fresh fruit and vegetables every day and food samplings that they do. It is amazing to have the smell of food cooking on your campus.
Brandy: We had 28 schools in Napa with 19 that didn’t have kitchens whatsoever. So, before the kitchens were done, nothing could be cooked onsite. We had to ship foods to the schools hot and have them sit in a “hot box” for hours and lunch would be served off from a folding table. It was bad for food quality and food safety. So, through that bond that Katie mentioned earlier, we had the money to make the kitchens “real kitchens” again. So, the food was assembled and prepared in the Central Kitchen, shipped cold to the school and heated for the first time onsite. They could all smell the food being cooked, and people became curious about the food and started eating it again. Teachers also began to eat the food and talk about it.
Laura: It became a positive experience versus what had been a “fast-food” experience. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Quickly make a choice and then go gobble it down and now back to the classroom. And I remember asking the board: “Is that what we want to teach our children about food?” Another change has been that the NOSH brand has become more of a household name and there is now pride in what we’re serving and it’s even shared on social media.
Photo below: Kids participating in growing awareness about "real school food."
Q: School Food programs are facing so many challenges right now from constant COVID changes, to staffing shortages to major supply chain issues, what have you experienced in your district?
Brandy: I was still in Napa at that time, and I don’t think we took a day off. We started feeding the whole community right away. We took advantage of all the waivers that the USDA put out. I would like to think that because we were doing so much for the community that the NOSH name became more well-known. More people were leaning on us and donations starting showing up of both food and money. We were out there in all conditions serving curbside meals to families in need. Nationally, I think it showed how important our school food workers are to our communities. They were out there braving the conditions and being on the front lines to serve families and children.
Laura: One of things that stood out for me during COVID was it highlighted how much work there still is to be done with hunger in our country and food insecurity for children. I just remember Brandy and her team putting together food boxes for families to prepare meals at home, and we ran out of food and there were many families in line who needed it. That really hit home to me. And realizing how we need to remove the stigma of “school food programs” and focus on the nutrition and well-being of our children. We all need healthy food. We’re all the same and we can’t function well without healthy food.
Katie: If we can think of a positive that came out of COVID, I would say it’s that school lunch programs are going to be better because it nationally called attention to “what are we doing?” Shouldn’t all kids be fed? If we’re going to educate all children, we should be feeding all children.
Q: Do you have any advice for other parents who are concerned about the quality of food in their school systems? What is the best way for them to get involved, and what specific actions can they take?
Katie: First, Chef Ann Foundation has so many great resources on their web site. Then, it’s so important to look at the data in your area: the public health records as well as what children are eating in school. There’s a direct link between the two when it comes to health. We need to rethink our contracts with these big food giants and think differently and locally. I know not every state is as fortunate as California because we have fruit and vegetables year-round, but there are many ways to keep food more local. I can’t emphasize enough how important it was to really focus on educating and communicating with the entire community: politicians, school staff, parents, and public employees at the County. You have to keep the pressure on and don’t give it. Get people to look at the numbers and see that it's not more cost-efficient to serve unhealthy food in the long run.
Laura: If you want to make a change, be ready for a marathon not a sprint. You’re changing programming. If there is a lot of processed and packaged food in your program, then it’s very likely there is a third-party provider who is profiting from that. It’s important to connect money to people, teachers and programs. Is your school food program operating at a loss and understanding how and why? It doesn’t have to be that way and there are better ways to do this and that’s where the expertise of the Chef Ann Foundation can really help you move forward.
Q: What would you love to see for the future of school food in our country?
Katie: Get rid of the stigma for school lunch programs and feed all children. I think it’s that simple. There shouldn’t be a stigma around it. In my own school experience, I had to have a different colored lunch ticket which said that I was on the reduced lunch program. I hated pulling out that card. It was humiliating. We shouldn’t do that to kids.
Laura: I agree with Katie. It should be just as free as books and the classroom. What I’d also love to see is more education about food. My kids had a class called Harvest of the Month and my children came home one day and said: “Why don’t we ever buy kale?” That class and education exposed them to food in an entirely different way. Kids need to understand where food comes from and to experience gardening and farming. We’re more of a fast-food nation now and I hope that we’ve peaked there and we’re going to come back around to slow-food and real cooking.
Q: Do you have a mantra or quote that you live by or that inspires you?
Katie: I was a history teacher so one of my favorite quotes is: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That speaks to me because I know I’m not the easiest person to work with and I won’t stop until I get to what I think needs to be done. I may take down some soldiers along the way, but I’m not going to stop until I see what is wrong righted.
Editor’s note: The quote is attributed to Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Laura: I have two favorite quotes. One is from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” The other one is from Zig Ziglar: “If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.” Trust is so important because when you are fighting for a cause, you have to come from a very honest place and sometimes that means being vulnerable and sharing your why. Why are you doing this? Why is this important? I apply the why question to everything I do. What is your why? A simple and powerful question.
Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) is a key nonprofit partner for Bluestone Life. A life insurance policy from Bluestone Life benefits nonprofits like CAF. A percent of premium and a complimentary Impact Rider can be part of food systems change and bringing healthy, scratch-cooking to our schools. We encourage the Practical Activist in all of us to get involved in your community and support organizations like CAF who want our children to have the nutrition they need to learn, grow and thrive.
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