Photograph by Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press, Zuma
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Seventh grader Gabriel Davenport chooses toppings for a salad at lunch. The salads are offered with a selection of fruits and veggies for sixth-eighth graders as the first salad bar at a K-8 school in Detroit Public Schools.
Photograph by Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press, Zuma
The Plate

Detroit’s Rebel Lunch Lady Wants to Fix More Than Food

One of the running clichés in modern America is that local food is an elitist concern—something only foodies, which is to say rich white folks (and especially hipsters), care about.

And then you meet Betti Wiggins.

As the head of the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools, Wiggins is responsible for feeding the city’s 46,000 public school students. She was born to parents who left the South during the Great Migration, and was raised in rural Michigan on a truck farm, and one of her most striking straits is the down-home pragmatism with which she approaches her work.

“You know what I did yesterday?” she asks in February. “I went out and contracted for two acres of sweet corn, and got that corn for less than 30 cents an ear—non-GMO!” She grins. She’s just made a deal for summer meals.

And yet, for all the practicality Wiggins espouses, she’s taken a somewhat radical approach in her six-year tenure heading up the meals program in one of the nation’s poorest and most beleaguered school districts. Convinced that fresher food would help kids learn better, and set them up for better diets in the future, Wiggins set about reconfiguring the district’s meals—and the purchasing and processing infrastructure behind them—with that in mind.

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Betti Wiggins is not your average lunch lady. Photograph courtesy Detroit Public Schools

She’s shifted the schools’ purchasing program towards local produce—no mean feat given Michigan’s short growing season—and now spends about 14 percent of her budget on local food. The goal, says Wiggins, is to source 20 percent of the schools’ food locally; the share of local food was zero when she came on board.

Wiggins is also on a mission to make meals healthier. She’s thrown out the deep fryers in the kitchens, and is so keen to trade canned and frozen produce for fresh that she’s launched a 2 1/2-acre production farm on one campus, with more than 20,000 square feet of hoop houses and a network of 80 school gardens. She then sells that food back to the district at a price that’s competitive, but still covers her production costs.

Wiggins has also begun contracting with local farmers to make up for what she can’t grow herself. And because all that produce coming out of the gardens needs to be peeled, washed, and diced before it can be eaten, she raised $264,000 to outfit a processing and prep kitchen at Frederick Douglass High School.

“It just seems like it’s the right thing to do,” says Wiggins. “[Students] get an opportunity to know they can have an apple and they don’t have to have a bag of chips. It’s a good way of introducing a better eating pattern to children and hoping they have lifelong lessons behind that.”

Wiggins is not the only school lunch crusader, of course. Chef Ann Cooper first gained notoriety as head of school food for Berkeley, California, and now heads up a foundation dedicated to improving school food. Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef, spun part of his television series “Food Revolution” around the recalcitrant lunch ladies of Huntington, West Virginia, America’s fattest city. Amy Kalafa and Susan Rubin spawned a book and movie out of their work as Two Angry Moms challenging the norms of school food.

Wiggins is sensitive to the concern that eating better costs more. But she has built her career on the idea that good food can be had far more affordably than most people think.

That may be in part because Wiggins has little other choice.

Her kitchens serve all students a free breakfast, offer lunch, and provide a dinner option for anyone in after-school programs, at a budget of $2.50 per child per day. Partly that’s because Wiggins has little other choice. The district she oversees is in such dire financial straits that it is currently seeking its fifth emergency financial manager since 2009 and is currently under threat of bankruptcy. (The district’s outgoing EFM, Darnell Early, was the emergency financial manager in Flint when that city decided to switch its water system.) Through it all, Wiggins has steadily made the case that, with a little creativity, even a distressed place like Detroit can afford to feed its kids well.

To wit: Wiggins announced last fall that she’s developing plans for a 27-acre urban farm and food business complex on Detroit’s east side, repurposing the now-shuttered Kettering High School—all 225,000 square feet of it—for the project. The idea is to use the building to house all kinds of food initiatives: commercial kitchens and food processing, food business incubators, job training, health and wellness services, even raising fish in the defunct swimming pool. The grounds, meanwhile, still graced by a bright blue K and easily ten feet tall in front of the main building, would become a hub of outdoor food production and offer community space.

All of this is within reach largely because of Detroit’s sobering realities of population loss, and the closure of more than 100 schools in the last decade.

“Detroit Public Schools is the largest landholder in the city,” says John Mark Hack, the executive director of the Local Food Association, who helped Wiggins develop a formal business plan. The Kettering proposal is now circulating to interested companies, particularly those seeking to build expertise in local food processing, he says, with a $20 million price tag. If Kettering goes well, says Hack, “we could be talking about something that could spread to other vacated DPS properties.”

And that, says Wiggins, opens up possibilities for the school food program to gradually feed itself more and more healthy food—without breaking the bank.

“If I can process lettuce and produce for 30 schools and sell that produce back to myself,” says Wiggins, “that’s how the program can sustain itself.”