how a handful of moms forced their school to change
Kay Boyer’s little boy used to have behavior problems. But once she discovered that the culprits were certain food additives, she removed them, and her normal child was back. She wanted to make sure it stayed that way! He would be starting kindergarten in two years and Kay knew that the foods he would get in the public school cafeterias would be filled with the very additives that would harm him, so she decided to do something about it.
The year was 1979 and as a member of the Feingold Association Kay learned about an exciting study that took place in New York City’s 803 public school cafeterias. The foods had been changed, using the Feingold Diet as their model. By removing the worst of the synthetic food additives (plus a modest reduction in sugar) the test scores of the students rose dramatically from the 39th to the 55th percentile on the California Achievement Test, and the number of children falling 2 or more years behind was cut from over 12% to just under 5%!
If the nation’s largest school system could do this, surely her own schools in Fairfax County, Virginia could make similar changes. At Kay’s urging, she and several other Feingold moms met and planned their strategy. I was one of those moms, and knew that trying to persuade the Food Service department to change the food was useless. Several of us had already tried to have a dialogue, but our efforts were met with hostility and absurdity. (They claimed that if they removed petroleum-based dyes from the food, everything would be gray, like the color of their filing cabinets!)
So, instead of trying to make changes by starting and the bottom and working up, we decided the best chance of success would be by starting at the top, and that meant the county’s school board. As elected officials, these folks were sensitive to the wishes of the public.
We decided to make up petitions calling for an “additive-free” school lunch, even though we were not concerned with the removal of all the additives, just the following: synthetic dyes, artificial flavors, BHA, BHT and MSG. (TBHQ was not then in common use.) We took these petitions to the county’s public libraries and the staff members were very helpful about letting us put them out. (We would soon realize that they needed to also be in the area health food stores.)
It was not hard to gain some publicity in the local newspapers. Back then, the idea of moms wanting to reform school food was a novelty!
We had tremendous sympathy from the public. Although we knew that most of the people at that time might not be aware of the damage from food additives, many had unhappy memories of the food they were given in their schools, and thought change was a good idea. (We didn’t try to explain that there’s a difference between food that is filled with additives and food that is simply cooked badly!)
The health food store managers were terrific – they kept the petitions by the cash register and would encourage customers to sign on.
We soon had about 4,000 signatures, and in the pre-electronic days this was an impressive stack of papers. Kay set up a time to present the petitions to the school board. The board members had read the media accounts and we were delighted to see that when they received the stack of petitions, they had already made plans for several pilot projects to be held in area elementary schools. They wanted to see if the costs would change and if the food would be well accepted by the children.
We quickly saw how effective it was to put the pressure at the top, on the School Board. They told the Superintendent to change the food; the Superintended told the Food Service Director to change the food, and so she had no choice.
The county’s Food Service Director was away on sabbatical leave and so it fell to her assistant, Penny McConnell, to handle the change and to find the suppliers who would provide the ingredients they used, as well as the prepared foods, in versions that were free of the dyes and other additives. Fairfax was able to buy some of the same foods that had been created for the New York City schools, including an all-natural chocolate chip cookie. In the fall of 1980 the county initiated an “additive-reduced school lunch” that eliminated the additives addressed by the Feingold Diet, as well as MSG. Ms. McConnell reported to the school board that most of the suppliers were very cooperative – not surprising since Fairfax is a large county with many schools so they are a good customer.
The pilot program was very successful. The food I sampled was delicious, well received by the children, and the cost was comparable to what the county had been spending. So the changes were extended to all of the county’s schools. Similar changes were made in the foods served in those schools that offered breakfast. The rainbow colored sugary cereals were replaced with real food, and the “juice” was ditched in favor of actual juice.
In neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, Feingold volunteers put out petitions and also received a very positive response from the public. The county’s Food Service Director contacted our Feingold mom, Dee Anne, and begged her not to submit the petitions to the school board, promising to make the same changes Fairfax was making. Dee Anne kept her promise and so did the Director.
Other area school systems showed interest and made positive changes in their food as well.
Sadly, time and pressure from many sources would gradually erode the healthy food options, and eventually the food in all of these schools, including New York City, sank back to their previous levels. Back then, the issue of school food was not in the public eye, as it is today. Also, the epidemics of childhood obesity, diabetes, ADHD, etc., were not as overwhelming as they are today.
As far as I know, the strategies that worked so well in Fairfax and Montgomery counties have not been adopted by any of the many activists who have followed. I cannot say if it will be as easy and successful today as it was back then, but I am hopeful that some groups will try it out. The amount of time and effort we put into it was relatively small and the results were fast and wonderful….at least for quite a few years.
A Handful of Moms
How did we get into this mess?
America Wakes Up
DC Fresh Cooked Food
School Food Exposed
School Lunch Solution
New Study Shows
What Are Kids Eating
New Study On Obesity
The Great Potato Debacle
Hot School Lunch
Chef in South Bronx
New York Public Schools
Different Kind of Lunch
Lunch Lady or Lunch Teacher
School Foods Can be Real Foods
What One Women Can Do
Schools Have Many Options
Arguments Against Reform
An Outrageous Idea
How Other Countries Feed Their Children
Synthetic Food Additives