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Is ketchup a vegetable again? “Rebel Lunch Lady” discusses politics, health of school lunches

Oct 23, 2017

Is ketchup a vegetable? How about the tomato paste in pizza sauce? 

For decades, what we feed our children for lunch when they're at school has been as much about politics as it has been about health. 

Former first lady Michelle Obama made healthier school lunches a priority. The Trump Administration has since scaled back the stricter nutritional requirements that Obama pushed for, specifically standards in three areas: whole grains, salt, and milk. 

Today on Stateside​, we decided to see how all this plays out where it matters most – school cafeterias. 

Betti Wiggins, Officer of Nutrition Services for the Houston Independent School District, is one of the best in the country at figuring out how to serve the healthiest food possible to school kids.

She headed the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools, and she's credited with transforming the food served to Detroit kids. She was also honored by Eating Well Magazine this year as a Top 10 American Food Hero, and many people know her as the “Rebel Lunch Lady.”

When Wiggins started at DPS, she says school lunches looked “beige." That's before she started making changes.

“Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam, we chased them out of town,” Wiggins said. “We had a funeral for the deep fat fryers. We took what I call ‘countable food’ — hot dogs and corn dogs — off the menu. We removed the little square pizzas. We removed iceberg lettuce and came up with a salad mix that was specifically designed for Detroit. We started buying local food.”

Wiggins said that they also added more fruit and vegetable options and made sure to be inclusive with options, offering Meatless Monday selections.

While the expenses for food went up, Wiggins saw it as not only worth it, but manageable.

“If we think about serving kids as an extension of the classroom, if we think about supporting academic achievement by making sure that kids have a nutrient-dense, high-caloric diet that supports brain activity and all the other phyilogical things that go on that’s driven by food, then it’s a slam dunk. It’s easy,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins sees making a switch to more health-conscious and “good food” as an option for other school districts too, saying that, “Healthy is relative.”

“If you get a higher quality food and prepare it in the correct way, it is healthy,” she said. “We had to change that, that healthy food is only food that you buy at Whole Foods. You can have healthy food from anywhere.”

Listen above for the full conversation.

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