Friends, supporters and casual visitors to this site:
We’re passing the baton to you.
We know quality, nutritious school food impacts our kids and our community.  Concerned parents have addressed the issue since the 1990s.  Despite our many efforts, we couldn’t break through the institutional intransigence towards real change. It didn’t matter that a new food service director replaced the old, that a winning candidate for the BOE ran on the school lunch ticket so to speak, or that a consultant was brought in by the district (the resulting 2010 report is still on the district’s website).   It didn’t matter that quite a few districts of the same size have made very significant change.  It didn’t matter that Madison continued to expand a reputation as a “foodie” community, or that nutrition is linked to the achievement gap.  Even federal funding requirements could only strong-arm minimal change.

Here is a list of some of our accomplishments over the last five years:
  • For 3 years, we had a representative at the majority of MMSD Board of Education meetings. This representative implored the BOE to take action.
  • We interviewed two candidates for the BOE in the last school board election. The text from those interviews was posted on this website.
  • We produced an hour long radio show on the sad state of MMSD school food. Our guests included a naturopath, a food service director who is getting it right, and a pair of MMSD six graders who organized a school lunch boycott.
  • We were featured in the HBO documentary “Weight of the Nation”.
  • We were interviewed in Brava Magazine.
  • We participated in the Dane County Childhood Obesity Prevention Collaborative.
  • We presented at the YMCA’s Healthy Living Summit and Isthmus Green Day.
  • We surveyed over 150 parents.
  • We posted the results of a student-led survey of diners at O’Keeffe Middle School on our website.
  • We were quoted in articles in the Wisconsin State Journal, the Isthmus, and by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
  • Gompers, Lowell and Van Hise PTOs passed resolutions in favor of better food.  These were presented to the Board of Education.
  • O’Keeffe Middle School successfully removed a slushie machine.
  • Chocolate milk and sugared cereals are no longer served at breakfast.
School food is such an easy thing to fix and has huge long-term benefit.  The district’s intransigence gives one pause.
Although we are disbanding as a formal group, our personal commitment remains.  Keep up the good fight, school by school, home by home.
Here’s to good food for great kids!
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Interview completed on Saturday, Marcy 9, 2013

(Madison Families for Better Nutrition – Salud Garcia – SG)  Have you eaten the lunches or breakfasts at the school?

(T. J. Mertz – TM)  No.  I have seen them but I haven’t eaten them.

(SG)  What was your impression? 

(TM)  Not very positive.  One of my sons would eat hot lunch about twice a month.  No longer does that.  My oldest is a senior in high school and has never ever touched one.  I make lunch for my kids every morning.

Our oldest was a picky eater and we knew he wouldn’t eat what was on the menu so we made him a lunch every day.  Now he never chooses school lunch – In fact, I don’t think he has ever touched one.

Our youngest wasn’t picky eater.  In the beginning, he tried a few lunches at school, and he would pick a few days a month where he liked what was on the menu.  He always would choose unhealthy things like French Toast Sticks.  And because it was only once a month, it was fine.    Last year he said “I don’t want to eat that stuff anymore dad.  I want to eat the lunch you make.”

(Madison Families for Better Nutrition – Ellen Carlson – EC) – How would you feel if your kids had to eat school lunch every day?

(TM)  Or what if we were on free and reduced lunch and they had to eat there every day –  I would not feel good about it.  The choices are not good.  And these are our most vulnerable kids.

And it’s really unfortunate that our society is such that the schools need to provide 3 and 4 meals a day for kids.   I’m not saying that the school shouldn’t be feeding the kids – they have to. But the central mission of the school should be educational.

But the schools do have to step in – and the federal programs are already designated to do that.  The schools have so much on their plates to begin with, being the center of nutrition programs is unfortunate.

(SG)   You know, the kids don’t like bad food either.  I ate lunch with my daughter every Monday for 6 months.  And the kids didn’t like the food that the school district is convinced that the kids ate and liked. 

Have you read the 2010 Lunch Lessons Report?

(TM)  I haven’t, but can you tell me about it?

(SG)  Lunch Lessons LLC is run by Chef Ann Cooper and Beth Collins.  Beth Collins came to the school district a few years back, looked at what we do, and issued a report saying where there would be opportunities.  And basically what they said was that there is nothing preventing our district from serving better food to the kids.  We have good facilities and well trained staff, it’s just a matter of will.  We have the capacity.

There are other schools and districts with much worse funding situations who have done really amazing things with their kids, like Baltimore, and now Memphis. 

(TM)  What does food service say the barrier is?

(SG)  They have given us various excuses – they say things  like “kids won’t eat this stuff” and “we can’t do all of this chopping of fresh fruits and vegetables.”.   I challenge that because somehow other big industries do it.

(TM)  How many meals do they serve a day?

(SG)  About 19,000 lunches.

(TM)  With breakfast, it’s probably closer to 30,000.

(SG)  The school board did fund a committee and they were the ones who recommended that Steve Youngbauer be hired.  They basically threw up their hands and said “yes, it’s a big problem, but we don’t know what can be done.”  But we challenge that because Beth Collins, an independent observer from a group that has helped people make these changes repeatedly, said it was possible.

Now the group has morphed into a Sustainability committee and are excited that they are working towards getting compostable trays, but that doesn’t help kids who are struggling with diabetes or kids who are getting two out of three main meals a day from the school.  I would like to think that we are giving them the chance for a healthy young adulthood  and preparing them for a good school day, not setting them up for diabetes.

It would great if they could at least stop doing the bad stuff.  Middle School kids can have an energy drink every day.   If we could get rid of the drinks without the sugar, it would be a huge benefit to the kids.  Kids don’t need juice – they just need a piece of fruit.

(TM)  There is enough opportunities for kids to access that stuff outside the schools.  It’s not like the kids are locked down in the schools 24-7.  When you talk about freedom of choice, it’s a red herring.

(SG)  What will you do to improve school meals, including food and beverages?

(TM)  I hope to learn from people like you and other people I know who working on these issues now.  You can see the kinds of questions I ask – What are the barriers to making change?  What kinds of actions can the board of education take?  I always say that this is a larger philosophy on serving on the board of education-  that there is this tension between administrative autonomy and governance.  If you read the statues, the Board of Ed can put themselves in wherever they want.  Their power is huge.

Now  – It’s not good governance to step in everywhere.  But my inclination is against deference to administrative fiat.

The ultimate lever is the budget.  We can say “unless you do this, we are not going to pass the budget.”  That is an ugly fight, and you don’t want to pull that out too often.  There have to be other levers in there.  Some of them are policy levers and I’m sure you’ve found in your own work that the Board of Education can pass policies but policies are not always followed, and the enforcement is very difficult.  It’s one of the ones where I think that in addition to passing policy, the Board of Education needs to demand much better reporting on what is going on.  More regular, and better quality, and not just some administrator sitting at his desk saying “we’re doing great things.”

I think it’s a realistic question “will kids eat this”.  It’s not, “kids won’t eat healthy foods”, but it’s about particular choices.  If good food ends up in the garbage, it’s not doing anyone any good.   I think you need to pull in parents, teacher, the people who are working the lines, people who are cleaning up the cafeteria and ask – “how can we get healthier choices that kids will consume?”  My wife works in the schools, and she sees that kids are given a whole piece of fruit, and kids will throw it in the garbage. It’s not just the money being spent, it’s that he or she isn’t eating the food.

(SG)  Part of the issue is that the quality of the food isn’t good.  I asked my daughter how the some of the new school lunch choices were going, and she said “Mom, it’s not going good.  They serve raw broccoli, and the kids won’t eat it because it’s bitter.”  I can’t imagine a restaurant serving bitter raw broccoli and getting away with it.

(TM)  It can’t be top down.  The practice has to be broad based.

(EC)  – A concern is that they have the choice between greasy pizza – that they like and are familiar with because school has been feeding it to them their entire lives – and an apple and a turkey sandwich.  if they are not fed only the apple and the turkey sandwich or they are not fed that every day for two weeks – that is likely to not be their choice.  Any parent who tries to feed their kids new foods understands that their first choice isn’t always going to be the healthiest – it’s going to be what is most familiar.

(TM)   What would I do?  That is the best question you can ask.  The first thing I would do is learn more.  Learn more about current practices, resistance to current practices, what is going on in other districts.  I will read the report, and I will talk to peple like you, and I want to talk to board members.  I think that perhaps there is an opportunity with the new superintendent.

Once of the concerns that I have is how much time the kids have to eat.

(SG)  That was one of the things that the Lunch Lessons LLC report pointed out that the kids needed more time.

(TM)  I don’t want my kids eating lunch in 12 minutes.  It’s not healthy.    Obviously the school day is crowded, but the time is a real issue.  They have to stand in line, they need time to socialize.  That is another thing that has to be on the table.    Part of healthy eating is taking time.

(SG) – One final question –  Have you accepted contributions from food and beverage companies for your campaign?

(TM)   I don’t want to give a categorical no, but I would be careful.  With all contributions, it’s a case to case basis. For example, if someone with a CSA offered to give me a donation, I would take it.  I wouldn’t accept a contribution from Nestle Corp, if that is what you mean!