Lead with the Definitions: What is Healthy?

I’m a mission statement person. I find that the more work you do at the front end of program development – mission statement, definitions and goals – the easier things flow through implementation. If you’re entering the school food arena now, the good news is that you’ve got a plethora of thoughtful, nuanced and tested definitions to use as a reference.

Before you conclude which one is right for your community, however, you must ask yourself, “Who’s the decider?” If it’s you – if you happen to be the governor of a state or the secretary of education or the superintendent of a school – then (with all due respect) go directly to Ann Cooper’s Lunch Lessons and her website, www.chefann.com. Chef Ann feeds children real food. She did it in Berkeley and she’s doing it in Colorado, and she can show you how to do it too.

If you’re the decider and you believe that school children should be fed fresh whole foods cooked from scratch, you’re just a few hiring decisions away from that becoming a reality. If, however, it’s not you – if you’re a teacher or a school nurse or a parent like me – your job will be to convince the decider. Still read Lunch Lessons, but then head to the Harvard School of Public Health website, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource, for an important alternative to the USDA food pyramid.

I’ve heard both Dr. Greene and Ann speak eloquently and at length about the USDA and it’s pyramid, so I’ll limit my comments to the parent advocacy problem – the processed chicken nuggets, syrupy peaches and microwaved sausage biscuits that you’re trying to get replaced meet all of the USDA guidelines. The government says they’re “healthy.” Strategically, you’ll need to proffer an alternate definition to use as the foundation of your request for reform.

The advantages to the HSPH guidelines are that they’re 1) authoritative, 2) science-based, and 3) clearly articulated. They offer an alternative pyramid and detailed food service guidelines. Most significantly, the HSPH definitions will move you beyond the USDA nutrition-by-the-numbers to a qualitative consideration of ingredients and menus.

In addition to providing the framework for a qualitative nutritional analysis, espousing the HSPH guidelines will enable you to elevate the subjective discussion of “what is healthy?” to an objective one. In almost every meeting with a school principal or headmaster, I was told that for every “organic mom” there were four “choco-taco moms” (or some variation thereof – “hot dog moms,” “cupcake moms”) ready to beat down their door.

Never have I experienced labeling associated with any other educational priority (“math mom!”), nor have I witnessed school administrations so flummoxed by divergent parent opinion. (To their credit, it might be the beating down the door part – as we’ll discuss tomorrow food does make people awfully emotional.)

The perfect solution, then, is to invite your administrators to rise above the subjective discourse to an objective standard – a logical, science-based nutritional foundation from which all food service decisions can flow. The disadvantage to the HSPS guidelines is that they might not go as far as you’d like to go. They won’t get you to organic or regional or seasonal or sustainable or fair trade. However, depending on your community – and your decider – it might be the appropriate goal. At least it might be a necessary first step, after which you can build community support for your additional goals.

Published on: December 29, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Theresa Pileggi-Proud

Theresa Pileggi Proud is the former Executive Director of Children's Health Partnerships. Theresa's interests continue to grow with her children and now include positive gender messaging and programs to promote leadership opportunities for young girls.

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