What are the critical elements for school improvement? Staff, curriculum, and … food?
Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer in the Houston school district, thinks so. Wiggins believes that connecting students’ nutrition and meal experiences to the rest of their school day can make students healthier and more alert, boost their science and social skills, and improve school climate.
“Principals are so overwhelmed, and we have a lot of skills and wherewithal to help them change the culture in their buildings,” she said.
Feeding students “is often considered as a necessity, but not a requirement,” she continued. “But it’s a big part of a student’s day. So, when you start looking at the school environment, you’ve got to start talking about school breakfast, school lunch, as well as all the other things that you have to do.”
Under Wiggins’ guidance, the nation’s 7th-largest school district has become a testing ground not just for how to increase the quality and variety of school meals for some 200,000 students, but for ways to go “beyond the plate” to make school meals more supportive of students’ social and academic development. Her efforts come as the district fights to avoid a threatened state takeover of its struggling, high-poverty schools.
Wiggins arrived in Houston in 2017 as part of a move to bring the district’s food services in-house for the first time in more than two decades. In a district where three-quarters of the students are eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, inequities between poor students and their more advantaged peers were starkly highlighted during lunchtime. Students who paid for their lunch lined up separately from those whose meals were free or subsidized, and “lunch shaming” for students who ran up cafeteria debt was common, a practice Busby called “problematic.”
Only 10 of the district’s 289 campuses had salad bars, and many children living in one of Houston’s so-called “food deserts”—neighborhoods more than a mile from a grocery store—had no better access to fresh produce at school than in their neighborhoods.
In the years since Wiggins took over the food program, she’s cut through some of the district’s knottiest food-equity issues. She hired a dietician to review every school’s menu. The district installed more than 140 new salad bars, including in all elementary schools, and delivers fresh fruits and vegetables for campuses that don’t have room for a permanent station.
Wiggins earned federal approval to provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every student in the district—eliminating the practice of singling out students whose meals were subsidized—and the district has started to provide free meals for students during winter and summer breaks as well.
Wiggins, 71, has seen food as a path to equity throughout her career. She started as a food service director in healthcare—“So I understand regulation,” she quipped—while also volunteering with Meals on Wheels America to deliver food to low-income and often malnourished seniors. Many of those seniors had never learned about nutrition or to cook for themselves. That experience sparked an interest in child nutrition, and she moved into food services in school districts—a career that’s taken her from Washington, D.C., to Detroit, and now to Houston.
“I’ve just always had this notion about feeding people,” Wiggins said. “I’ve seen hunger and I’ve seen food insecurity in every age group—from children to geriatrics. So I know good nutrition can help your health and even your mental and social circumstances.”
Wiggins is not just concerned with what students eat, but with their experiences when they’re eating.
In overcrowded and outdated cafeterias, long lines left Houston’s students with odd lunch hours and with little time to eat.
In theory, students should have at least 20 to 30 minutes to eat, but the combination of overcrowded cafeterias and the need to squeeze as much academic time into the school day as possible meant some students ate lunch as early as 10:30 a.m., and those scheduled later in the day could end up with less than 10 minutes to eat.
“You should see some lunch schedules; it’s more like a train schedule,” she said. “I just started saying there’s got to be a better way.”
Restructuring lunch is a major logistical lift, so Wiggins is building support through pilot projects that allow schools to experiment with ways to change students’ meal experiences. Some schools are trying outdoor “tailgate” lunches, which give students more time outside and ease congestion in older buildings, which often have small lunchrooms.
Wiggins also piloted classroom-based, family-style meals for preschool and kindergarten students at 10 elementary schools to teach young students table manners and free up cafeteria time for older students. Teachers volunteer to eat with their students.
“To me it’s worth it because the kids get a more humane environment and more leisurely environment, rather than … just rush, rush, rush,” Wiggins said. “That contributes to plate waste and so many things.”
Finding more time for lunch helps Wiggins push back against highly regimented lunches, in which students are assigned seats and are not allowed to talk.
“I always tell principals when I go into lunchrooms like that, ‘You know, I would never go back to a restaurant where somebody told me to sit down and don’t talk to my friend,’ ” Wiggins said. “There are some lessons to be learned about socialization.”
Terah Kuknen, who teaches 4- to 6-year-olds at the Garden Oaks Montessori Elementary School, one of the schools that piloted the new lunch schedule, said getting more time and a calmer space to eat made “a huge difference” for her students.
“They’re learning their manners, they’re learning how to serve one another and be part of the community and eat together—which is something that we were not able to have in the cafeteria,” Kuknen said.
Before coming to Houston, Wiggins led food services in the Detroit public schools, where she started 76 school gardens and a 4.5-acre school farm, where students grew squash, kale, and tomatillos for the district’s food program.
Houston’s year-round warmth also supports growing leafy greens and peppers at several elementary schools. Two years ago, Wiggins partnered with Tesha Williams, then the chairwoman of the health science department at Baylor College of Medicine, to develop a garden-based curriculum in which students work through nutrition and environmental lessons as part of their science, math, physical education, and social studies classes.
The district is piloting the garden curriculum in a feeder system of high-poverty, low-achieving elementary, middle, and high schools which have been targeted for school improvement.
I know good nutrition can help your health and even your mental and social circumstances.
“We are using the gardens as a medium, not only for experiential learning, but to also improve student understanding of the fundamentals of science, math, logic, and literacy,” said Williams, who now works with teachers on the food services’ academic programs.
“She’s passionate about these ‘beyond the plate’ initiatives,” Williams said of Wiggins. “She said to me, ‘I want my kids to have more than a consumer relationship with their food.’ ”
“She calls herself an old lunch lady,” Busby said. “But the new blood that she’s brought to the district is just a breath of fresh air.”
Wiggins has been helping the district rise to meet new challenges since she arrived. The biggest was Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that slammed the Texas coast just before the start of the 2017-18 school year and only a few months after Wiggins started the job. The storm caused an estimated $126 million in damage to Houston’s schools and left thousands of the district’s students and their families homeless or without power for weeks. Still, Wiggins threw open the district’s undamaged cafeterias to serve free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to students and their families for the entire school year.
Despite the initial expense, Wiggins’ investment in the district’s families helped her make the case that Houston qualified for community eligibility under the National School Meals Program, allowing the district to provide three meals a day to all students without requiring individual applications. She also used the change to negotiate a higher reimbursement rate for subsidized foods from the state.
As a result of the higher food reimbursement rate and better student meal participation, Houston’s food revenue rose by $14 million in the first year under Wiggins. The district has moved from serving about 37 million meals a year when Wiggins arrived to 46 million last year, Busby said.
Wiggins still sees a long road ahead. She recently garnered criticism for allowing Domino’s Pizza to sell an à la carte version of its pizza on campus, which had been adapted to meet federal school nutrition rules.
The partnership exposes students to more commercial food brands, but it also helps underwrite the district’s move to less-processed food overall. “I don’t want school lunch to get too trendy,” she said. “I want it to augment our academic school day. I want it to provide kids with nourishing food midday so they can go out, run around, and go back into the classroom, ready to learn.”