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First Person: How I Became a School Food Advocate



I fell into school food advocacy completely by accident.

My three sons all attended public school in San Francisco, but my kids didn’t eat school food and it wasn’t on my radar. One day in 2002, our middle school’s principal asked me to figure out a way for the cafeteria to stop selling soda, potato chips, and other junk, because the then-director of the student nutrition department for our district had rejected the principal’s request to do so. Armed with a 30 second pitch, I approached the school district superintendent and asked if our school could do a pilot to replace junk food with healthy food and track the revenue. That way, if the district ever decided to get junk food out of all the cafeterias, there would be data to indicate what the financial impact might be.

I figured the worst that could happen would be that she would say no, but to my joy, the superintendent said it was a great idea, instructed me to write up a formal proposal and promised to approve it. Eight months later, we had the data to show that our cafeteria brought in more money selling healthy food than it had selling junk. I was asked to sit on the newly formed school district student nutrition committee, and in autumn 2003, was appointed co-chair of the committee.

Over the next several years, our committee worked with the student nutrition department on a number of efforts, including removing junk food and trans fat from all school cafeterias; bringing in fresh fruit, salad bars, and whole grains; beginning the Grab n Go breakfast at most of our high schools; finding funding for a swipe card payment system; and eliminating the a la carte service which inadvertently stigmatized students eating free lunch.

In 2011, I stepped down from the committee to devote more time to, my school food advocacy website.

My decade on the front lines of school food reform has allowed me to work with some very dedicated people, especially our current student nutrition director,Ed Wilkins. Ed and many others have generously shared their knowledge of how school food works; I had no idea that it was such a complex subject, but even after 10 years, there is still more to learn. I’m often approached by parents or others who want to help "fix" school food, but who lack the basic understanding needed to be effective, or who grasp the issues, but don't know how to move forward. The goal of my website is to help these folks understand both the complexities of school food regulation, and the strategies that make for a successful advocate. is where I have archived everything I’ve learned.

There is a lot of misinformation about school food. Between the people who have a product or service to sell (and therefore may not be completely forthcoming in their sales pitch), to the media who are always on the lookout for the silver bullet solution to obesity, to the miracle chef who supposedly created organic meals for pennies, most people don’t really get the facts, or even know where to look for them. Something gets repeated enough times and people will start to believe it, without stopping to say, “Wait, is that really true?” I spend a lot of time just debunking school food myths.

Although I focus mainly on the food, helping kids take ownership of their own health is about so much more than just school food — it’s about nutrition education, physical activity and making smart choices all day long, not just at school. It’s about equitable access to healthcare, to safe places to play outside, and to fresh food in all neighborhoods. It’s about trying to counteract the billions that big food and beverage companies spend yearly marketing unhealthy food to kids, and getting the message out about making healthy choices.

If there is one silver bullet solution to fixing school food, it is money. There just isn’t enough of it in the federal school meal program to pay for the kind of freshly prepared meals, full of local, sustainably produced food, which our kids need for optimum health and learning. And although we have been able to greatly improve our school food here in San Francisco, we are not miracle workers, and all those improvements come at a price. Our nutrition department runs a hefty deficit each year, and although our district has thus far been willing to make up the difference out of the general fund (money which is then not available to pay for teachers or textbooks or other classroom needs), schools shouldn’t have to choose between meeting kids’ educational needs and meeting their nutritional needs.

Among the most important lessons I've learned about fixing school food is that just because one school can do something doesn’t mean everyone can do it. Other tips I can pass along: Make friends with your student nutrition director; school food has its own language and you need to know how to talk the talk; and fixing school food is a team sport — no one should try to do it alone.

But most important, I've learned that just one person really can make a difference, by finding other people who believe in your cause, by providing organization and leadership and by overcoming obstacles rather than letting them defeat you. If you make the decision at the start that, no matter what happens, you will never, ever, ever give up until you reach your goal, there is nothing you can’t do.

Click here to connect with Dana Woldow.