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Mom versus mystery meat

Fed up with the burgers and sodas taking over her son's cafeteria, Dana Woldow fought to bring healthy meals to middle-schoolers.

By GreatSchools Staff

A mother of three and school volunteer, Dana Woldow became a cafeteria crusader when her second child, Max, was attending Aptos Middle School in San Francisco. Her efforts to ban junk food from her son's school — and eventually the entire district — earned her a 2007 Jefferson Award for her community service.

Running on empty calories

For many years, cafeterias in San Francisco middle and high schools had à la carte cafes called "beaneries." These cafes offered students a wide array of junk food but no healthy options. Students could choose between such items as hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and chips, and on-campus vending machines were stocked with soda. The principal at Aptos noticed that students would often have chips and soda for lunch.

After a district administrator refused to help integrate healthy foods into the school menus, the principal mentioned the problem to Woldow, who was already very involved at Aptos. She offered to look into the situation. The main objections to offering nutritious food seemed to be bureaucratic inertia and a fear that Student Nutrition Services (SNS) would lose a lot of money if it stopped selling the junk food everyone assumed kids wanted.

Making a change

Woldow went straight to the top. She approached then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman at a public event and asked her to support a pilot program to bring healthy food options to Aptos for the rest of the school year. Woldow promised to carefully track profits and losses so the district would know how such changes would affect its budget. The superintendent's support made it more difficult for other administrators to stall the project.

Next Woldow organized a group of interested parents and got down to business. The parent group surveyed students about what types of healthy food they'd like, and Woldow worked with SNS to ensure that no empty calories were served in the beanery. In January 2003, fresh salads, homemade soups, and baked chicken with rice replaced burgers, pizza, and hot wings. The Coca-Cola vendor swapped out sodas for bottled water, 100% fruit juice, and nonfat milk. And cafeteria profits went up. At the end of the school year, Aptos had made a profit of $6,000, one of only three school cafeterias in the district to finish the year in the black.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/24/2010:
"A really good job! This approach should be applied in public schools everywhere!!!! Thanks to that devoted and progressive thinking Mom the change looks more possible! "
02/23/2010:
"Wonderful! I'd wish that we had such a program in our school district. I send my kids to school with healthy lunches most of the time, because I can't stand the school lunch options. My children were delighted about these at the beginning but now prefer mom's meals 'cooked with love'. but this story is inspiring!"
09/21/2009:
"One of the very first things that should be elemenated from the menu is bleached white wheat flour,or % 99/ reduced use, add whole wheat flour as far breads ,rolls, whole wheat hot cakes ,no corn syrup in anything,no corn starch."
07/17/2008:
"i think that one mom had her own opinion on the situation. im a student and i feel it should be our choice to eat it or not"
10/16/2007:
"My question is elimating junk is good but what about the conventional food that are processed and use chemicals and stuff?Whole foods have a awsome selection of snacks the children can eat. Can we possibly incorporate more organic foods. Any suggestions are welcome. In some cases it my be the only good meal the children get to eat. Natural Awakenings is a very good magazine for reading. I had suffered from high blood pressure after having my last child who is 9 yr old since Sunday 23rd.I started eating on organic foods 7-8 mouths ago. My pressure has never went over 120/80 since I have lost over 35 lbs and I still eat the same things but they have to be organic. Hummmmm?(coffee,burgers,popcorn, pizza etc.)"
10/15/2007:
"This is a very informative and motivational article. I can vouch for the accuracy, as my daughter attended Aptos during those years. For those who still have questions, if the school is a public school, the SNS records and budget must be accessible to the public, as well. It may be surprising how much 'public' is really private. "
10/12/2007:
"This is really helpful. I always send healthy food with my daughter to kindergarten because the food there is junk. Comment on 8/1/07, what line of whole raw foods are available? This would be a great addition in CA."
08/1/2007:
"Just found your article. Awesome! I too am a mom on a mission for good nutrition. I am battling that bureaucratic monster. I found a wonderful line of whole raw foods that are perfect for the vending machines! But no one is listening! These are real foods not empty snacks. The kids love them! I had the chance to have them tested here in Mn at a local high school and wow ..the feedback was great! But the director methinks is afraid of change? any input anyone? "
05/18/2007:
"I am an employee in a school district. One of our diabetics has brought in lollipops and large chocolate bars on several occasions. I attempted to discuss this with administration with no response. No parentshould be adding these items to their childs lunch; especially a student with Diabetes. There are too many quality foods available to us now a days and candy should be banned in all schools. (there are enough parties with treats to make up for the personal treat items)"
12/15/2006:
"Removing caffeine and sugar was probably not nearly as effective in changing behaviors as the removal of petroleum based dyes and flavorings. See www.feingold.org for detailed information about the link between certain food additives and behavior problems. Also the site provides studies linking additives with behavior problems. When people remove 'sugar' they invariably reduce the amount of synthetic dyes, flavorings and preservatives. This is the main reason for the improvement. Also, for more ideas on improving school food see www.school-lunch.org."
11/13/2006:
"I would love to know how to get this going in the elementary level as well. Soup it seems is never served! Is there a flow chart on how this works? A plan? How do you track profits? Does it cost more or b/c it is bought in bulk the same overhead applies? I know how expensive it is to eat healthy at home. How do you discount those of a lower income w/o sacrificing nutrition? Face it, processed food is cheap! Natural, nutritional food is not. Thanks for the advice!"
11/13/2006:
"Awesome accompishment! Makes a mother proud. Healthy kids are better behaved kids and everyone benefits (most importantly the kids)."
11/10/2006:
"Thank you! Reading this makes me feel like I could bring this to my Daughters elementry school. I have a friend in Sedona who has written 'Healthy Food, Healthy Planet' It is the how to of implimenting this to schools and institutions. I've been afraid to intoduce this to the school and we even have a Great Principal! Maybe its time to stretch our comfort zones and Stand Up in a new way.... really go that extra mile for our kids. They deserve healthy food. We just send her lunch everyday."
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