Detroit's Food Economy

DPS: 100,000 Meals a Day

by: Laura Weber-Davis

February 21, 2013


Gompers Elementary/Middle School students eating lunch. Photo Credit: Matt Elliott, WDET

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"Sometimes I get push-back from people who say ‘Well, you shouldn’t be feeding kids whose parents can afford to.' That’s not true in this economic time.” -- Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Office of Food Services for DPS


Detroit Public Schools serve about 100-thousand meals a day. Betti Wiggins is executive director of the DPS Office of Food Services. She took the position in 2008 and helped Michigan become one of three states chosen to pilot a federal program that allows universal meal access in high poverty areas. That means all DPS students are now eligible for free breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wiggins boasts the large district is one of the best in the nation at getting kids who eat lunch at school to also come in early for breakfast.

WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis continues our series on Detroit’s food economy, with this report from Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood.

Guests:
Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, DPS Office of Food Services
Alycia Meriweather, executive director, DPS Office of Science
Harold Harris, parent
Glynis Flowers, 5th Grade teacher, Gompers Elementary Middle School
The kids of Ms. Flowers’ 5th Grade class


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Transcript
Detroit Public Schools serve about 100-thousand meals a day. The district has worked over the past few years to appeal to the palettes of kids and the pocketbooks of parents by touting a free, healthful food program.

WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis continues our series on Detroit’s food economy… with this report from Gompers Elementary Middle School in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood.

In Glynis Flowers’ 5th grade class, the day begins with breakfast and a song. [KIDS SING] After singing, all of the kids eat quietly at their desks. Terrance says breakfast time in the classroom is a lot different than lunchtime in the cafeteria.

DPS – Terrance “I like the way the day start because it be so calm up in the room.”

Ms. Flowers says students who don’t eat breakfast become whiny and morose.

Flowers – no breakfast “Sluggish, lethargic.”

But when they do eat a healthy meal in the morning, they have a…

Flowers – with breakfast “Great sense of learning, they’re more energetic, and the kids feel better about themselves and they like the breakfast a lot.”

Detroit Public Schools serve a continental-style breakfast… cereals, muffins, bagels, yogurt, skim milk, fruits and fruit juices. Every kid in Ms. Flowers’ class knows their favorite healthy foods at school… though sometimes there are too many favorites to choose from. Here’s Surendra…

DPS – Surendra “I like when we get apple juice.” “Do you prefer apple juice over apples?” “No.” “No? You like apples.” “Yes.” “Is apple your favorite fruit?” “No.” “No? What’s your favorite fruit?” “Strawberries.” “Strawberries? You are a mystery man.” [laughter]

Breakfast is served in the classroom. Ms. Flowers says it helps the kids move seamlessly between the start of their day and their lessons. Food-system advocates also say serving breakfast in the classroom has helped de-stigmatize breakfast at school which has often separated kids in lower socioeconomic groups from their peers.

Betti – breakfast 2 “When everybody eats, we’re all in the same boat.”

That’s Betti Wiggins, executive director of the DPS Office of Food Services. She took the position in 2008 and helped Michigan become one of three states chosen to pilot a federal program that allows universal meal access in high poverty areas. That means all DPS students are now eligible for free breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wiggins boasts the large district is one of the best in the nation at getting kids who eat lunch at school to also come in early for breakfast.

“And you know sometimes I get pushback from people who say ‘well you shouldn’t be feeding kids whose parents can afford to.’ That’s not true in this economic time. When you start looking at what’s happened in the state of Michigan, in this economic environment, the kids we’re taking care of now, their parents are the working poor, the near poor, or the soon-to-be-poor, given what happens in the employment cycle.”

Harold – economics “I’m doing okay, you know me and my wife work, so I’m doing okay.”

Harold Harris is a parent of two kids who attend Gompers. He’s a SMART bus driver, and volunteers at the school between shifts.

“But there’s a lot of parents – I’m part of the parent group up here – I find a lot of parents don’t work, then you have single homes. So to see the food program for the kids is a great blessing. You may have some kids this may be their only meal.”

Over the past few years Wiggins has turned off deep fryers, cut fat and sugar content. and served frequent meatless meals. She’s introduced fresh Michigan produce to the menu, replaced canned foods with frozen, and insisted food be prepared on school grounds.

Betti – leftovers “We were transporting food for an hour and a half, two hours, and by the time it got to the site that’s how school lunch got a bad rap. If you put it in a pan, you cook it the day before, and you transport it, you’re serving leftovers.”

Wiggins grew up on a farm in southeast Michigan, and she says that upbringing has informed the way she approaches her job. Last year dozens of DPS schools became part of a farm-to-school initiative with vegetable gardens; intended to expose kids to new foods, teach them the science of gardening, and to integrate healthy eating and nutrition into the curriculum.

Alycia Meriweather is executive director of the DPS Office of Science.

Alicia – doors “It’s not necessarily that every kid is going to be a chef or a scientist or a horticulturalist. I mean we don’t know what they’re going to do. But the point is, you show people doors. And if you don’t show kids doors, they will never have the opportunity to say ‘That’s a door I want to go through.’”

While Wiggins and Detroit Public Schools have received national recognition for their success in feeding kids… District Superintendent John Telford says there are still thousands of kids who don’t attend school that DPS must work harder to bring through its doors.

I’m Laura Weber-Davis. WDET News.