The Daily Feed: Q&A with Prominent School Food Reform Advocates (Part Two)

I recently conducted an online Q& A with Rochelle Davis, founding executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign and a longtime advocate for children’s health, and Christie Vilsack (pictured), wife of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Iowa’s former first lady. Mrs. Vilsack has been a public school teacher for 25 years and is a recent grandmother. (Please read yesterday’s post about Cooking up Change.)

Cheryl Sternman Rule: How did you first become involved with Cooking up Change?

Christie Vilsack: Karen Duncan, wife of Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and I have been attending some events at schools working to connect farmers and school lunch programs. Because she knows I’m a teacher and interested in the issue of more nutritious school lunches, she asked if I’d like to join her as co-chair of Cooking up Change.

CSR: As a teacher and mother, is the school food reform movement especially close to your heart? Why so?

CV: As a teacher, a mom and now the grandmother of an 8 month-old grandson, I know how important it is to come to school ready to learn and part of that is eating healthy foods that fuel the body and the mind. Gardening and planting fruit and nut trees is a multi-generational activity in our family. We do this for fun and for the good food it provides.

I grew up eating fresh food from the garden spring and summer and freezing and canning food for winter. Tom and I and our sons helped their grandfather dig potatoes, shuck corn and pull weeds in his garden. Our autumn weekends were spent making apple cider in his orchard with the cider press he used as a boy. This year we made apple cider with the newest member of our family to continue the tradition.

Eating and preparing food from “scratch” is also a family tradition. I grew up in the heart of farm country, and we’ve raised our children there. Both sets of grandparents raised animals for food. My friends and the parents of my students grow corn and beans to earn a living. My father used to say, “If the farmers are doing well, we’re all doing well.”

I have frequented the farmers markets in our hometown of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in Des Moines while Tom was governor and, now that he’s Secretary of Agriculture, in our Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington DC every week. We like the fresh fruits and vegetables, but we also like to support local small farmers and the culture they represent. The school food reform movement is about making sure we connect farmers to new, local markets, about making sure that children have nutritious food and about making sure they learn life-long good eating habits to prevent chronic disease. An added benefit is the value of children knowing the cyclical nature of life, our connection to the soil and the routine and work-ethic associated with working the land and producing food.

CSR: How can Americans across the country support your efforts?

CV: Almost all Americans are familiar with the school lunch program, because they have experienced it first-hand. Sometimes it’s difficult for voters to keep up with the intricacies of legislation and the legislative process, because many issues are so complex.

School lunch is easy to understand. The desire for their children to be healthy and to learn well is a value shared by most parents, so I think parents will be the best advocates for improving school lunches. They will understand the added economic benefit of supporting local farmers. They will recognize the added benefit to the whole family of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Their advocacy will be easy—speak to school board members when you see them at local sports activities or the grocery store. Ask questions of a legislator or member of Congress at a legislative forum or campaign event. Use the answers to make decisions about whom to support in the upcoming elections.

CSR: What are the main obstacles to reform at this time?

Rochelle Davis: I think that the country is facing some very difficult financial challenges and making the funding of this program a priority is a big political challenge. Improving school food is part of a long-term strategy of protecting the health of our children. It’s hard for our political leaders to commit to a program where the benefits are realized over a long period of time.

CSR: Are you optimistic that efforts to expand the Child Nutrition Act will prove successful?

RD: One the one hand, the leadership from the White House is galvanizing support for a strong reauthorization and there are many new voices making the case for more money for better food. And 83 percent of Americans support expansion of the Child Nutrition Act to provide healthier food and cover more kids.

On the other hand, I’m concerned about Congress allocating adequate funding. It’s a tough economic time and Congress is at a stalemate on so many issues. So we are going to do everything that we can to make sure that Congress takes advantage of this opportunity to protect children’s health.

CSR: Why did you think it was important for students from Chicago to come to Capitol Hill to prepare their new-generation school lunch?

CV: I’m an experiential learner and an experiential teacher. Students learn by doing. The Chicago students have already learned important lessons about food, finances, problem solving and working collaboratively in the competition. Now they will learn the added lesson of advocacy, a lesson that they’ll take into adulthood. They’ll see the direct result of their advocacy as they demonstrate their skills and speak up about an issue they care about. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Preparing a lunch for policy-makers is a hands-on lesson for the legislators to remind them that a school lunch can be both healthy and inexpensive.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is a widely-published food writer and the voice behind the blog 5 Second Rule.

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