Infamous for its troubled schools and failing economy, Detroit, Mich., isn't the place you'd expect to find a revolution in school nutrition. Since 2008, though, Betti Wiggins has set about changing the diets of the children of Detroit — 55,000 kids across 141 schools — by turning off the fryers and introducing kids to new vegetables.

FE&S: When did you join Detroit Public Schools?

BW: This is my second time with Detroit Public Schools (DPS). I first came here in 2000. DPS had very many seriousBetti Wiggins, Executive Director of the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools deficiencies, and I cleaned them up in about 18 months. So when I came back to DPS in 2008, there had been a management company in Detroit that had replaced me. The union hired me to write the proposal to bid against the management company, so we did and we won. My whole slogan was "We work for stakeholders not shareholders." I promised to return the $6 million they'd been paying in management fees, and I promised to put that back into quality food for the kids. And that's what we did.

FE&S: What programs have you started since coming back to DPS?

BW: One of the things you can do with child nutrition funding is renovate cafeteria space and kitchens. So in order to start our Fresh Cook Program we had to go into a lot of the kitchens and put in new equipment. My whole district used to operate off of a satellite truck, but by going in and putting a unit in each kitchen — a convection oven and a steamer — we can do something I call "fresh cooking."

We also redid some cafeteria spaces that hadn't been done for 40 years. One of the things we forget in the school environment is that environment is just as important to kids as what you put on the tray. So if you serve food in a dark, stinky gym, it's not conducive to enjoying your food.

I had money to put more fresh food into the diet, because I wasn't paying management and administrative fees. I had money to do school gardens. I started to drive a nutrition program and not a commercialized program. We went from 29 percent of the budget spent on food to 46 percent spent on food. And I don't serve hot dogs or iceberg lettuce. We really have made the food offerings more nutrient dense.

Now that there's new equipment coming in we can cook healthier meals.

FE&S: What have these upgrades given you the opportunity to do?

BW: It's changed the quality of food that we prepare. We had a base kitchen program but now we use convection ovens. We do fresh cooking on-site. None of my product is raw; most is precooked, but with convection ovens and steamers at least the vegetables and starches can be cooked fresh on-site. I don't use canned vegetables; we do use some frozen, but I'm trying to get to all fresh.

It also allows me to have greater variability in the menu. We had acorn squash processed — from fresh — and because of convection ovens and steamers we can bring it up to temperature and put seasoning on it and it's still a fresh item. I never could have prepared that before if I were using a satellite-based program.

Real foods do cost more, but it's also healthier, and it's teaching kids variety. What I'm finding is that I get more participation. So don't tell me kids don't eat vegetables and fruits, because they do! We try to grow lettuce from April to September and then process it. In the summer we'll have tomatoes and other produce grown in the garden and we'll process that, too.

FE&S: What have been your biggest challenges inimplementing your programs?

BW: We had challenges meeting local building regulations. In Detroit I have to install a hood, in Highland Park I don't. Just recently I had to cover air gaps in every building because of a change in local codes.

Of course, I have to deal with food safety and state health codes as well. When it was mandated we had to have a ServSafe manager at every site, I had to certify 151 people.

I'm not opposed to regulation, because some of the things have been very good and forced me to make sure I had people in every kitchen that understood safe food handling practices. Because we have a commercial foodservice establishment license, I have to abide by all the rules even though the intent was not meant for us.

Our motto is "a hungry child cannot learn" so we try to make sure our kids have enough calories, because the research has shown that kids need a midday meal. And to me, it's just not treated in a respectful way. We are trying to get people to realize what an important role nutrition plays in supporting education and positive outcomes in the classroom. I serve 17 million meals a year; it's more than "just a school lunch".