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Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Office of Food Services at DPS

Detroit Public Schools' 'head lunch lady' overhauls child nutrition one meal at a time for 55,000 students in the district

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Content brought to you by Excellent Schools Detroit

On any given day, Detroiter Betti Wiggins feeds approximately 55,000 children. As executive director of the Office of Food Services for Detroit Public Schools, Wiggins oversees an 800-person operation that ensures the food Detroit school children are eating is healthy – and setting them up for success in the classroom.

"It takes more than books for students to learn," says Wiggins, who cites Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a framework for the importance of proper child nutrition. "Learning can't happen until children's basic needs for a safe, clean school environment and a healthy nutritious meal are met."

Wiggins has ample opportunity to introduce healthy fare to Detroit school children as the individual ultimately in charge of menu development for the district. Since 2011, DPS has been serving free breakfast, lunch and, in many cases, dinner to every child in the district as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Eligibility Option program. Wiggins has made it her mission to show children a better way to eat, so that healthy eating habits become routine for them and, by extension, their families.

To that end, Wiggins and her team have turned the district's deep fryers off for good, introduced locally grown produce to school menus, shifted food preparation to school grounds, cut the fat, sugar and salt content of menu items, and removed artificially sweetened drinks. In the fall, flavored milks will be a thing of the past – as will iceberg lettuce, which Wiggins points out is 65 percent water. Her team's 2014 goal is to remove ranch dressing from the district menu.

As an example of what a typical DPS meal looks like under Wiggins' watch, the Office of Food Services recently served a lunch of bone-in barbecue chicken with collard greens, macaroni and cheese and a corn muffin.

"I wanted the kids to see that chicken doesn't have to come in a nugget or a strip," Wiggins says of the meal.

This particular lunch followed Wiggins' standard meal template, whereby the center of the plate is made up of a minimally processed item surrounded by fresh produce. Exactly what those foods will be on any given day is determined well in advance by Wiggins' team, including a district chef who uses the cafeteria at Douglass Middle School as a test kitchen.

Beyond the cafeteria

Wiggins' approach to child nutrition is multi-pronged. One crucial prong that she is especially enthusiastic about is school gardens. There are presently 51 in the district – but not for long. Wiggins says that the district will boast 75 by April. These gardens are yielding produce that, in many cases, will make its way to the lunch trays of the same students who planted and nurtured the seedlings. Wiggins likes to share the story of the close to 2,000 pounds of cucumbers grown in a hoop house by students at DPS' Drew Transition Center for cognitively impaired individuals. These cucumbers graced the plates of students throughout the district.

"School gardens not only expose kids to new foods; they support education achievement by teaching students about science and gardening," Wiggins explains.

When you consider that Wiggins was raised on a farm in southeast Washtenaw County, being a child nutrition specialist is a job she was seemingly born to hold. Wiggins spent her formative years tending to chickens, pigs and one cow while helping harvest vegetables including soybeans and corn. It was this early exposure that ignited Wiggins' interest in food. She fueled that through coursework at Cass Technical High School and eventually Wayne State University, where she studied family and consumer resource – or, as Wiggins refers to it, "home ec."

Upon graduation, Wiggins applied to and earned acceptance to law school. She grappled with whether to pursue law or food, ultimately opting for the latter.

"Food services seemed like it would be more rewarding," Wiggins recalls. "People remember their lunch lady."

A career in cuisine

Wiggins spent a number of years working in food services at Detroit-area hospitals and eventually went to work for Marriott Corporation's food services arm. She worked as food services director in Ann Arbor and later Paterson, N.J. and Baltimore, Md. before accepting a position as chief of food service administration for public schools in Washington, D.C.

Never had Wiggins seen the level and magnitude of poverty that she did during her time in D.C. It was during her tenure there that, under her supervision, the district introduced a school breakfast program – an experience that would prove useful upon her return to Detroit in 2000 when she joined DPS' Office of Food Services and implemented a similar program.

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