Universal meals could be the gateway to healthy food for all students
This Director of Child Nutrition is paving the way with his passion for health, his employees, and building racial equity in the food system
July 21, 2020 | By
The Chef Ann Foundation’s Hero Highlights | Stories from the Field is presented by Danone North America. To ensure the incredible stories of our school food workers are being told, we’re sharing stories from the field as school food teams tackle food insecurity due to widespread closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay tuned for more.
For school food support during the coronavirus pandemic, view our COVID-19 Resources & Support page. If you’d like to nominate a school food leader in your community for Hero Highlights, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Miguel Villarreal, and I’ve been in the child nutrition world now for close to 40 years. I’m currently working in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District and was hired last July. Prior to that I was in the Nevada Unified School District. And prior to that, I was in Texas for 20 years where I initially started and had no idea that I was going to even work in the field of school nutrition. When I was in college, I earned a degree in nutrition, but I wanted to work with professional athletes and help them in their sport. But [child nutrition] was the first job I got out of college. It was available.
And, you know, I have made a career out of it. And honestly, it’s been good for me because I’ve been able to focus on, future athletes, if you will, and many other careers students end up taking. It’s been good.
San Ramon is made up of 36 schools, 32,000 students, 6% free and reduced. We were serving an average of about 6,000 meals a day before COVID. And then we had a robust a la carte program.
So you told me about how you got into school food, which is awesome. I’m wondering—what drives your passion? Why did you stay and why did you start that career?
Thank you for asking that. My passion has always been about health. It started at a very young age. I mean, I can recall when I was five years old watching some gentleman named Dr. Lane. I was watching him on TV and he just inspired me with what he was saying about health and nutrition and so forth.
And that had a lasting impact on me; I just continued to be interested in nutrition and in health. That led me to schools. Over time, working in schools and learning about food systems really brought to light the person that I am today - and learning about food justice and food inequities that were present all along, but we just weren’t paying attention to it at the time.
We were concerned about the health of the children and what we were doing and making sure that the bottom line was healthy, as well as with budgets and so forth. Over the years you realize that [school food and nutrition] programs are way underfunded. The employees are not paid sufficient salaries. There’s been lots of highly processed foods in our programs, which is truly an injustice because we were serving these kids foods that we know are harming their health. So pulling all that together has really helped me continue to work on the things that I really enjoy doing, and furthering the passion. And that is not just our health, but the health of the environment and the planet overall. So it’s been a good fit for me.
You know, you shared that, and it resonates so deeply with why I’m involved in this work as well. I just want to agree with you there.
Honestly, I wish I knew what I know now when I was your age, because I think, this next generation is gonna be able to take it to a whole new level. I’ve been in this for 40 years, we’re passing the torch at some point. But it’s [the younger] generation that’s really going to carry that torch and then take all these experiences from everyone all around us and improve the programs. I really believe that’s what’s going to happen.
That’s right. Well, that’s one of the reasons why we are so excited about these Hero Highlights—because that’s exactly what this is. It’s providing you that platform to pass down that learning and knowledge.
I’d love to hear you talk about your team a little bit. What are you most proud of your team for during this unprecedented time?
Our team has been incredible, just like many of my colleagues around the country. You know, we literally shifted our programs and within 24 hours we had full salad bars, as many programs have across the country, making meals from scratch. We took that program and did a complete 180. One hundred and fifty employees were retrained and we said, “This is what we’re gonna do. No touch points, everything in containers.” Students were still coming to the cafeteria at that time - this is before March 16th. I mean, that day will remain in our brains forever, when we shifted to complete curbside service. But our employees were incredible in terms of just stepping up and understanding the role that they play. It was something that I’ve said all along. Those that have worked in this industry truly know the role that our Child Interest employees have played all along.
I mean, from my early career when I started in 1983 to today, I just have seen these incredible women and men put all their energy and efforts in to making sure that we’re providing the best services for our children. And it’s really selfless, right? It’s selfless commitment on their part. It couldn’t have been shown any more during this COVID pandemic. Everybody in our area was told to shelter in place, and there were only a handful of essential employees that came out and actually did some work. And the child nutrition employees were with that crew. So how could we not be proud of them?
Did you see an increase in food insecurity and need in your community since the start of the pandemic with the stay at home orders and everything?
Yeah. So, what we’ve known, and what I’ve known for years in our communities, is that we have families that are truly food insecure, but yet do not qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. They live above the poverty level, but way below the cost of living standards. And so those families that we’ve known, they just have not been participating. I mean, I can’t tell you over the years how many of those families have just stopped by my office. Mom, dad, with their bills and showing me proof that, “This is all I earn. I’d like to try to apply for meals for my children, but we don’t have the resources.” So it’s been really disheartening for me to see that over the years. And so I’m telling you this story because today - because of the waivers that were put in place - we’re able to provide meals to all families. So those that are in need, the 6% free/reduced, and those in between.
And yes, we have seen many families come out and actually tell us how thankful they are, and even put it in writing. “My husband has lost his job. Thank you to you and your team.” And on and on. Just praise and accolades about the work that we’re doing and the fact that we’re helping them out. That’s reassuring to our staff as well. So, yes, those food insecurities are real and they’ve been real for a very long time.
Yes, and they’re now all the more relevant and known. Can you explain your emergency feeding program? What did it look like?
Initially we had no idea what it was going to look like. In fact, I’ll be quite honest with you. As a food service director hearing about all these orders for shelter in place, my first concern was, how am I going to keep these employees safe? Fortunately, there were some other organizations that were just as concerned as we were, and started really putting together resources for us. I mean, literally overnight, to provide us with some guidance. So within a couple of days, we knew we were going to do curbside service and grab ‘n’ go meals. And that’s what we started with.
We started with serving meals Monday through Friday. And then as we started learning more about COVID-19 and the concerns with safety and so forth, we then just went to multiple meals, two days a week. Parents drive up, some of them had their kids in the car, some didn’t. They have their student IDs. Then we have them drive up to another table where we actually set the food. The parents wear their masks, they get out of their vehicles. They take their food from the table. So we’re always, you know, six feet or more from each other. And of course, our working environments are also the same way, even with our employees.
We’re set up in our multipurpose rooms and spread out so we can put all these meals together. We have refrigerated trucks. Luckily, we were at three sites, so we are able to keep all our food nice and safe as well—the right temperature. And then we’re bringing food out as we need it, especially on these hot days. We have huge coolers that we keep our milk in. We’ve gone to quart-sized containers instead of little pint-sized units that we give out with all our meals. And then, of course, now we’re also handing out the USDA food boxes. And those have been really interesting because I honestly didn’t realize that the USDA was buying produce from our local farmers. I mean, they’ll say in the box where the produce is coming from and our parents are very appreciative of these boxes, and it’s helped increase participation as well.
Have you transitioned to a summer feeding program? What does that look like?
Yeah, we did. It was touch and go there for a while for us because of our low free and reduced percentage, and the area eligibility waivers were only—at that point—extended through the end of June. So, because we have such a low free/reduced population, we wouldn’t have qualified. But, the USDA extended the area eligibility waivers and the remainder of the waivers through the end of August. So we were able to transition into summer emergency meal services without any hesitation.
As I said earlier, I’ve been around a long time, so I’ve worked in many districts with summer programs or meal programs. Depending on the district, we [usually] didn’t have employees that necessarily wanted to work during the summer. We didn’t have students that came out during the summer, even with all the advertising and communication. It’s hard to get students out. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of our employees that signed up to work this summer and I’m also pleasantly surprised at the number of families that continue to come.
It hasn’t wavered; the number of families that come out has not wavered during the summer. It’s been beneficial all the way around. And we know that our programs (not only our program in San Ramon Valley Unified School District, but around the country) are making a big difference in terms of the economy and the health of our students, and in the food chain just in general—suppliers, manufacturers, farmworkers, farmers, etc. It’s just been beneficial for everyone.
It’s so poignant to hear that. And it’s proof that, you know, there is a community in need regardless of if you have a low free and reduced percentage or not. People are still coming and people still need that service.
Oh, absolutely. You know, it’s it. I’ve said this for years, that our school food service programs do serve—now more than ever—as public health institutions, because of meeting all these different areas that I just spoke about. I remember when I initially started, it was just about providing a meal to a student and making sure that that student ate, but not looking at all the consequences, negative and positive.
Well, speaking of things that are not just related to students eating. How is your team handling the recent protests around race and racial justice? Have you had conversations with your team around food equity because of this? And how is it all related?
Thank you for asking that question because that question is very near and dear to my heart. And I’ll tell you why. One - as a minority, a Hispanic in this field. And then two - as a minority in the field that was predominantly women when I first started in 1983. So really looking at it from that standpoint. I started in the Dallas Independent School District. Dallas has over 200 schools and I was an area supervisor. So, the area I was assigned to was West Dallas, which is primarily African American and Hispanic in that area. I had, up until that point, very limited exposure to African Americans because of where I grew up in south Texas. So for me, I was immersed—immersed in racial justice and learning...
I’ll just tell a story. I mean, this was early on when I was just hired and I was in one of my kitchens and I asked one of the managers, I said, why are there two bathrooms in here? Is this the men’s and women’s bathroom? And the [manager], she goes, “Oh, no, no, this is not men and women. This is whites and blacks.” In our kitchens in 1983! Now we weren’t using them in that respect, but those kitchens were so old that that’s what they were about. That just honestly blew my mind. I just wanted to learn more like, “What are you talking about?“
So over the next eight years I really got to know them. I got to know the employees that I was working with, know their families, know their backgrounds, know what they aspired to. I was in my early 20s and just learning about this. I always just held on to that (racial inequities) from that time. And that, over the years, has blended with food, injustice, and food equity because it’s all connected. You know, decisions that we make are based on, “Is it really in the best interests of our students, regardless of race?” Are we making decisions in the best interests of our students? And the answer is no - not always.
When I came out to California, I had to re-educate myself in the food system. That’s what made me who I am today. I just started reading a ton of books, starting with Michael Pollan. And that led me to many other books. And I just felt like I needed to, most recently, reeducate myself about racial injustices and learning about what’s going on, civil rights, and so forth.
So when you ask me how am I having these conversations? The conversation I have with my team is, “How do we take that information and work it into our programs in terms of diversity training and racial injustices and tie it into food injustices and food equity?” And truly have an understanding. I also just want to say that over the years, the employees that work in our programs are primarily culturally diverse. I mean, that’s just the makeup of the employees that work for us, and every district that I’ve worked in.
So they, of course, understand all these implications of what we’re seeing with racial injustice. But what I’d like to see is training. So we’re all on the same page, if you will. We know our purpose, why we’re there, not only in terms of what we’re trying to define about healthy food, but how that blends into food equity and food injustices that we’ve seen in our programs over time.
Have you noticed any change in your program participation due to the protests?
Yeah, I honestly thought that we were going to have a problem with it because we knew of a couple of protests that were scheduled in San Ramon and Danville. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh, we’re gonna see a decrease in participation.” I remember the local police department made some announcements to our families. You know, “There’s gonna be protesters. Be safe, stay at home, don’t come out.” And so we just thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to impact our Monday, that week’s meal service.” But it really didn’t have any impact at all.
I think it was one of two things. I think it was that they weren’t close to where we were serving. And then it highlighted the fact that these families are in need. For them to come out when the chief of police is telling them to stay home, they’re like, “No. I need to feed my children and I’m going to go out there. That’s important to me.” So that’s a high priority. I’m not saying they put themselves in harm’s way, but they certainly knew we were out there and they came.
It’s also a testament to you all for continuing to serve, to offer it regardless of the situation. Because you know that they need that.
Yeah, we definitely did.
Do you have any idea what your program will look like in the fall?
Yeah, we’ve had a lot of meetings. In fact, in the last two weeks, I think I’ve been in over 30 Zoom meetings to determine what we’re gonna do when school reopens.
The one thing I can say about child nutrition employees is that they’re well-trained, not only in our district but around the country. They’re very well-trained. We showed that when we went from March 13th serving in the cafeteria to March16th serving on the curb, that we can pivot literally overnight. So we don’t know what it’s going to look like. We do know that there’s lots of models that are being discussed and in fact, being brought to the board tonight.
I doubt any decisions will be made tonight honestly, but we never know. We’re getting close. So all that to tell you that, we’re ready. We’re ready to adjust to just about anything. I mean, literally anything. But what we need is some direction from the school board. We need some direction from the state and then we need some direction and some waivers from the USDA. And once all those things are in place, then we can do whatever system it is.
The other thing that really concerns me is I’ve been talking about our staff and how great they are. We’ve had a loss of revenue because of the types of programs that we’re offering during the summer. We’re not serving as many families. But with the kids coming back to school, I want to see those numbers again increase. I want to be able to retain all the employees that want to stay on the payroll. That’s very important. I want to help them out. I want them to know that is a major concern of mine. I want to make sure that that’s not a stress on their lives. We’re gonna make sure that their jobs are available and there for them.
And then another thing that I’m really working on is, you know, those parents whose children aren’t participating in our program. They need to understand that the food that we’re providing is the best possible food that we can source from our manufacturers because we have that opportunity now, more than ever, that we can be selective on what we serve and say, “This is what is gonna be included. These are the types of meals.“
Again, that’s part of that trust we’ve been building with our community and our parents and our students making them aware that, “Yes, we may be a limited menu, but the foods that we’re providing are healthy. And, we’ll continue to provide you the nourishment that you need, especially during this pandemic.” We need to reduce the amount of highly processed foods that we’re providing our children. So that’s something we’re going to focus on.
That’s great. So how can we as an organization and as individuals support your work right now?
Well, you know, the Chef Ann Foundation has been doing it all along. And that is in the resources that they provide. I’ve known Chef Ann for a very long time, since she started out here in Berkeley and have always acknowledged her, and her work, and her passion and enthusiasm. And over the years, you know, she’s just become a phenomenon, right? I mean, just around the world. I’d like to just see the Foundation continue doing what they’re doing. And giving support, the training and advocacy with what we’re trying to accomplish.
And I think more importantly than ever—I think this phrase is being used more these days—is universal meals with our students. If we can see that just take off and really outline the benefits. We have so many organizations that are behind this movement. And it’s something we’ve been talking about for years, the benefits of universal meals to our students, to our environment, land, water, air and to animals and planet and so forth, and just all the way around. And I really truly believe that those are the things that our programs can be a part of, and the Chef Ann Foundation can continue to support, and help move us in that direction.
That’s right. We are here for that movement and we’ll work until every student has access to fresh, healthy food.
Absolutely. I mean, that’s the goal all the way around.
Is there anything to conclude that you’d want the broader audience to know that we haven’t talked about here today?
Yeah, we’ve talked about a lot of things for sure. We have to continue to fight and those struggles have been there all along. They’ve been there in terms of food, equity, food injustices, and even as we talked about racial injustices earlier. I’ve said and many have said before, these child nutrition programs are prime in their communities. You bring the right people and the right resources together.
We’ve seen it in Boulder. We’ve seen it in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and we’ve seen it in Cincinnati, Ohio. So the point is that when you bring this community together, you can bring in some sustainable, positive changes that address the health of our children through food equity, through food justice, and, of course, all leading to prosperity in those communities. All that to say that: universal meals can be a part of all that.
The Chef Ann Foundation carries out our vision by ensuring that school food professionals have the resources, funding and support they need to provide fresh, healthy, delicious, cook from scratch meals that support the health of children and our planet.
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