Betti Wiggins: Keeping Detroit’s kids healthy

Intrepid thinking, resourcefulness and a passion for nutrition feed this K-12 director’s daily work.

At a Glance

Betti Wiggins
Executive Director of the Office of Student Nutrition
Detroit Public Schools

85,000 meals served daily, including universal breakfast and lunch, plus after-school supper programs

30+ charter and private schools served in addition to DPS

26 years experience as a foodservice director

betti wiggins

Accomplishments

  • Helped facilitate school garden and farm-to-school initiatives that bring regional produce to the table
  • Spearheading the redevelopment of now-vacant Kettering High School through a unique public-private partnership
  • Testified before Congress in support of improved school nutrition standards
  • First school district in the country to offer free universal breakfast for all students

Not long ago, Betti Wiggins visited a Detroit Public Schools kitchen to check on an understaffed lunchroom manager who was in the weeds preparing pizzas for students. The manager mistook Wiggins for the backup help she had requested and put the executive director of the office of school nutrition to work—hairnet and all.

“This is how Betti leads: jumping into a situation that needs solving, rolling up her sleeves, leading by example and doing what’s right, not sitting in an office,” says Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services for Minneapolis Public Schools, who met Wiggins through the School Nutrition Association.

Weber isn’t mistaken in identifying Wiggins’ determination. Under her leadership, DPS became the first school district in the country to offer free breakfast for students and was an early adopter of sourcing produce locally from nearby farmers—and even more locally with school gardens.

Wiggins also has forged new revenue-generating streams for her department, including establishing DPS as the meal provider for more than 30 private and charter schools in the Detroit area, some as far as 35 miles away. “I always viewed myself as a not-for-profit management company,” Wiggins says. “My whole belief is I work for stakeholders and not shareholders.”

All kids deserve healthy food

Wiggins has worked in districts serving students across various income levels—in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Paterson, N.J.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta—before returning to her hometown of Detroit, where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. She is passionate about good nutrition for all children, not just those labeled as at-risk or food insecure.

“People think hunger only happens on the urban street corners,” Wiggins says. “We need to stop, as a nation, discriminating among children. 'Oh, you’re poor, we’re going to take care of you.’” She strongly feels that poor nutritional choices can transcend class, and as her department’s motto advises, “It takes more than books for children to learn.”

“I tell people, 'I’m from Detroit, but everybody’s not poor,’” she says. “We have some of the richest neighborhoods in the country, and they do go to our schools. And I see what those moms are putting up on those counters [at the grocery store] … Most of my paid kids come in with the chips and the sodas.”

hoop house tomatoes
Wiggins has established DPS as the meal provider for more than 30 private and charter schools.

Farm to lunch table

Coming from a farming background, Wiggins is most proud of her progress incorporating local produce at DPS. “I knew what happened to some of that produce if you never had enough customers,” she says. “It was fed to the hogs or plowed under.”
As a participant in the USDA’s Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables, which launched in 2014, Wiggins uses the district’s USDA Foods allocation to purchase 30 percent of her produce from local farmers.

“[We’re] introducing kids to what is grown in our state regionally: butternut squash, parsnips, beets, apples, peaches,” she says. “I found me an African-American [-owned] market in Covert, Mich., that freezes 80,000 pounds of blueberries for us every year.” Those berries make an appearance on Wednesdays, when students use them in customized yogurt parfaits.

One of Wiggins’ supporters is her son, Sherman Wiggins, who after working as a restaurant chef transitioned to K-12 foodservice and became associate director of dining services for St. Louis Public Schools. “From the field to the plate, she has students out there planting and digging and eating what they helped grow,” Sherman Wiggins says.

Up next for Wiggins and DPS is the Kettering Urban Agricultural Project, the redevelopment of a 30-acre former high school site through a public-private partnership. The site will be used for food production, processing and development, and also will incorporate job opportunities for female entrepreneurs and formerly incarcerated women returning to the community—a population where Wiggins sees a particular need. “There are women out there … and they have the same problems in terms of returning to society as the male ex-felons have, and they have children at home, too,” she says.

market garden row plants
Wiggins uses her district's USDA Foods allocation to buy 30 percent of her produce from local farmers.

Pushing through challenges

In early 2016, sick-outs—teachers calling in sick to protest teaching conditions and health and safety concerns—and the resulting school closures were particularly challenging for Wiggins. “When they have those closures, no one understands that I am not a general-fund department; I am a revenue-generating department,” she says. “Those episodes of school closures cost me $525,000 in revenue.” Despite the losses, she was determined to pay her foodservice workers even during sick-out closures. “Teachers call in sick, they get paid. My people don’t have sick time,” she explains. “I said, 'If you come in and punch in, you’re going to get paid.’”

Wiggins’ determination and intrepid spirit have led her to share the district’s success through speaking engagements and peer exchanges. In 2014, she testified before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry in support of improving nutritional standards.

“In Detroit, we warmly welcome the higher nutrition standards of the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,” she stated during the hearing. “We are feeding fresh Michigan asparagus to inner city teenagers, and they like it.”

Wiggins shares DPS’ special projects and successes in hopes others will follow suit. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” she says. “Take it, run with it, make it big, make it explode.”
 

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