Betti Wiggins: Changing the way American children eat at school

“Quality food is the right of every child, really every human being.”
Illustration of Millie Brown.
Adriana Bellet / for NBC News

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By Janell Ross

"She Thrives: Black Women Making History Today" puts the spotlight on 10 amazing individuals whose achievements transcend generations, occupations and regions. These women — all leaders in their communities — are truly elevating the national conversation around black identity, politics and culture. Meet all of our "She Thrives" honorees here.

Name

Betti Wiggins

Title

Officer of nutrition services, Houston Independent School District

Age

70

Hometown

Detroit. Lives in Houston

Words you live by

"Don't hold your fists so tight. Leave your palms open because blessings flow in and out." — Betti Wiggins' mother

Your hero

Emily Shaw, who taught me that prayer can change things and Patty Brown, one of many salad girls and cooks in school cafeterias who helped me raise my son

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Get a head start on the morning's top stories.

How she thrives

Betti Wiggins talks about her serious work in a way that, more often than not, is funny.

“When I was in Detroit, we held a funeral for the deep fryers,” Wiggins told NBCBLK about the school food reforms she oversaw for half of the last decade in the Motor City. “We said goodbye to Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam too.”

The district was flat broke. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives program directors rules and a budget. Wiggins studied them and used both to her advantage as she established 70 school gardens and a 4.5 acre farm.

“We did a lot of things because we were serving children in a city where the grocery stores were long gone, and food shopping in gas stations was just the way families too poor to own a car had to live,” she told NBCBLK. “In the process, we introduced some children to their first fresh vegetables — not canned, processed or candied.”

Since 2017, Wiggins has worked as the Houston Independent School District’s officer of nutrition services. However, she calls herself “the head lunch lady.” When Houston, the nation’s seventh largest school district, tapped Wiggins to lead its food program, it was also in the midst of challenges. Almost34 percent of children in Houston were classified overweight or obese in 2016. The district’s 209,772 students come from a community riddled with so-called "food deserts." (The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as areas lacking access to affordable, fresh and healthy foods.) And, almost 75 percent of the district’s students come from disadvantaged families.

Then, Hurricane Harvey struck, flooding parts of the city. The district, which has provided free breakfast to all students since 2009, decided to extend free lunch to every child. That's continued this year. Free dinner is also available at more than 250 schools. The program that Wiggins oversees now serves at least 300,000 meals every weekday. To do so, she manages the nation’s largest school food cooking, storage and distribution center.

Some of Wiggins’ earliest memories include watching her city-dwelling relatives help plant a garden at her parents’ Michigan farm and then returning to can the bounty. But food was not always going to be her career.

Wiggins’ mother saw her own dreams of becoming a nurse stymied by the crushing nature of Jim Crow laws, so Wiggins worked to fulfill a vicarious goal. But when her mother died, Wiggins decided to embrace the ideas behind the political organization Black Panther’s breakfast program. She felt she needed to help those children with distended stomachs whom the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., visited in the Mississippi Delta in 1967.

“Quality food,” Wiggins said, “the kind which supplies sufficient calories and nutrition to allow focus, learning, productivity and growth, is the right of every child, really every human being.”

Wiggins replaced nursing studies with nutrition science. She campaigned for Chisholm, worked in food programs in the West African country of Sierra Leone, major American hospitals, a hotel chain and a management consulting firm before landing her first school lunch gig. It was a cafeteria lady slot, secured after the single mother of one deleted some parts of her resume.

Later, Wiggins brought her philosophy — developed during stints overseeing school lunch programs in Washington, D.C.; Paterson, New Jersey; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Baltimore — to every plate.

In Houston, Wiggins hired another black woman — a physician — to build health literacy and better eating programs. She’s partnering with companies in the city, and she’s cut some controversial but lucrative deals with others. She’s worked to include more of the world’s cuisine in the school lunch program, a crafty way to expand young palates and boost vegetable intake in a district in which 100 different languages are spoken. And contrary to the way many feed young kids, Wiggins narrowed elementary school menus to one changing entree a day. With the savings, Houston offers more vegetables and salad bars with multiple options.

Something Wiggins is doing may be working. Last year, a Chinese state news crew visited the Houston district’s Mandarin immersion school, conducting interviews with students in Mandarin. The standout: a small black boy who spent most of his time talking about the contents of his elementary school’s salad bar.

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