What I first noticed about her was an amazing pair of cowboy boots! I couldn’t help but appreciate the worn leather and bright embroidered embellishments of those boots! And the girl wearing them was so cheery, her happiness trailing behind her contagiously. We were at Pittsburgh’s first Outstanding in the Field farm dinner, and there was Kelsey, frolicking through the fields, serving farm-fresh foods with the biggest of smiles. (You can actually see her enviable boots in the video I made of the event).
When later we had a chance to meet, she modestly told me she was “just a lunch lady,” which didn’t compute in my brain. Memories of my elementary school’s lunch ladies flooded my head- white uniforms, hairnets, a certain severity mixed with a touch of tenderness, dishing out bland, processed foods from behind their counter (which I unfortunately ate with gusto as an unknowing child). How was this fun, passionate, youthful woman a lunch lady? Then I learned more about her lunch program, and it all made more sense.
When you “take something with a grain of salt,” you listen with skepticism. With “A Grain of Good,” I am asking you to do the opposite- to receive a message with optimism and inspiration. In this series, I interview and document the work of community leaders who use food as a vehicle for positive change, and Kelsey is one of those intelligent, tireless leaders!
A Grain of Good with Kelsey Weisgerber of the Environmental Charter School Lunch Program
What distinguishes the Environmental Charter School (ECS) & the principles of the school’s lunch program?
ECS is a charter that is hosted through the Pittsburgh Public School District, so our school is free and admission is based on a lottery system. The school’s mission is “to educate each student to high academic learning standards using a themed curriculum that will foster knowledge, love of and respect for the environment and the will to preserve it for future generations.” In applying that mission in our school, the administration of the school has always created a space for food to be a part of our educational programming. Lunch doesn’t just exist as a period of the day, but it is a program area where students are welcomed, supported positively, and served healthy meals.
“Lunch doesn’t just exist as a period of the day, but it is a program area where students are welcomed, supported positively, and served healthy meals.”
Describe your role & responsibilities.
As head “lunch lady” I manage our two buildings (K-3, 4-8), which includes working with our food team and food-service provider for meal service, exciting kids about the school lunch, supporting educators with food programming and working in the community on a variety of initiatives. It’s a lot of hats, but I like being able to understand how to connect different parts of our students’ learning and experiences together.
How have you intertwined your work at the school with the community and larger food issues?
The food professionals in this city are such class acts and they constantly donate their time, teach our students and support ECS’s food education curriculum. Whenever I mention what we are doing at school, or opportunities to work together to my food-industry friends, they jump at the opportunity! Some key examples would be folks like Keith Fuller of ROOT 174 who coached our cooking competition team last spring; Hal B. Klein, who guest “lunch man’s” and teaches our students about journalism; and Chad Townsend of Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream who guest taught our 8th-grade culinary-arts class and made paw paw ice cream, just to mention a few. I hope our students see these professionals’ fantastic contribution to the food culture in our city and think about how they can also work or contribute to the food system locally.
“The work we are doing here, by feeding real food and engaging with kids about healthy choices, is worth the occasional ‘Not more CARROTS, Ms. Kelssssey!'”
What are some of the biggest hurdles you face in your role?
It’s not easy to make every single child love school lunch every day. When I first started working here I used to take it really personally. Whether it was too many vegetables, or not enough of the “right” vegetable, it can be challenging to get buy in from all students and their parents. However, I know the work we are doing here, by feeding real food and engaging with kids about healthy choices, is worth the occasional “Not more CARROTS, Ms. Kelsey” look or ECS graduates coming back and telling me they miss school lunch.
What have been the biggest rewards of your role?
I love knowing that all students at our school are receiving a healthy meal. Often times school meals are the only access students have to a whole, nutritious meal during their day. It is a huge reward to know that not only do I get to nourish students, but then I get to help them learn about the benefits of healthy habits and food choices.
How have you seen kids’ attitudes toward healthy foods change? How do you help steer kids toward healthier choices?
In the four and a half years I have been here I have definitely seen kids’ relationship with food grow. That’s largely in part of the HUGE amount of programming our classroom teachers are doing daily. We have an edible schoolyard program in our second and third grades, and their program is very hands-on and exciting to kids. Overall, the curriculum offers a strong, multi-disciplinary approach to food education, and through these multiple touches, it’s changing our kids’ perspectives on food. Additionally, teachers in our upper school are running cooking classes, after-school food clubs, and focusing on farming and agriculture. It can’t just be change in the lunchroom. It has to be a part of the classroom culture and fabric of the school.
What are your goals for the future of the ECS lunch program? What would you like to see improve?
I would LOVE it if ECS had an on-site kitchen! Our food service team gets very creative when it comes to cooking lessons and food related programming. We have tons of portable burners and we’re cooking on top of everything, so I’d love to have a dedicated space where students could cook and then work with the food service staff as they serve daily. This would also really help our lunch program if we could cook on site, any last minute errors could be easily remedied and fixed before our meal service.
What has the parental reaction been to the lunch program?
Sometimes this one is hard to judge, as I mentioned with kids, it’s hard to please everyone. We have a lot of parents who I have worked with that like the lunch program and appreciate the educational experience that coincides with our meals.
Who inspires you? Who are your food/food justice heroes?
I am really inspired by a lot of the people in Pittsburgh focusing their work on food justice and sustainability. Emily Schmidlapp has done incredible work at Just Harvest helping people with food stamps have access to farmer’s markets. Just Harvest’s director Ken Regal is such a thoughtful man, and I wish I had the opportunity to work with him more! Their vision of creating good food for all is something I have always admired.
I’m also very inspired by the work happening with the Green and Healthy Schools Academy sponsored through the Green Building Alliance. Jenna Cramer, the VP of Green Schools, is committed to building healthy environments for kids in our region, and she’s always exploring how food is a part of that development. I like that she challenges schools and communities to think differently about sustainability. Jenna is an incredible listener, and she always fights for equity and is constantly seeking to bring more people to the table.
How do you educate parents who may not have had as much exposure to nutrition information and healthy cooking ideas?
In terms of reaching more families or exposing them to more nutrition-ed, that is done mainly by the students! The students are the best vehicles to share their food education and meal preferences when they go home. We’ve tried many things over my time here, but I think there’s always more we can be doing to get parents on-site and learning about food! Ideally in the future if we have a kitchen, I would love to see a parent cooking series in the evenings.
What is one of your funniest and/or fondest memories of a student’s reaction to lunch?
It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite, but I can tell you my favorite moment of eating lunch at ECS. Last year our 8th-grade students would frequently jump behind the lunch line to help our staff serve lunch. I found out a staff member wouldn’t be able to make it for lunch, so I rushed to our upper school campus to assist my team. However, I walked in to find a handful of kids behind the line, serving lunch to other kids. Shocked, I was trying to take it all in, and a student walked up to me and said, “Welcome to lunch Ms. Kels, we got you covered. Sit down, enjoy your lunch. Vegetarian option right?” I was so incredibly proud of those students. I still am.
How can readers get involved? How can they affect school lunches or healthy eating habits for kids in general?
Volunteer in schools! Be a positive face that students see when they work with food, or consume food. Our partners, Community Kitchens of Pittsburgh, have their food educators volunteer once a month to try new food during lunch, and the kids really like that one-on-one time, and really like their representative Emily Voelker. Kids ask me all the time when she will be back to sample new food. It doesn’t take a ton of time or commitment, but finding a school and partnering with a teacher or lunch lady goes a long way in encouraging kids to try new things!
What’s next for you?
After four-and-a-half years at one of the most magical places in the world, I am leaving my job at ECS. My boyfriend and I are lucky enough to travel abroad for a year, and we will be working in Uganda. We are really excited to take this opportunity to change our environment, meet new people and explore our interests in public health and community development. I look forward to returning to Pittsburgh in a year and continuing my work in health and education!
Want to help kids eat healthy lunches?
ECS will be filling Kelsey’s position and looking for the next lunch lady or lunch man. If you’re passionate about kids, healthy eating and environmental education, you can find more details on the school’s website www.ecspgh.org. You can also email Kelsey directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to meeting the next person to fill this role, but Kelsey’s boots will not be easy to fill. You’ll need a LOT of energy to pick up where she leaves off. After participating in one lunch session, I was in serious need of a nap!
Thanks Kelsey for being A Grain of Good! I’m so excited to continue following your journey!
p.s: Do you know someone who is A Grain of Good? Leave a comment, or email me your nominations email@example.com ! The world needs more inspiration, and the do-gooders need more encouragement!
p.p.s: Mark your calendars for School Lunch Hero Day (May 6, 2016), and be sure to celebrate those energetic folks who feed your kids! Or better yet, send a thank-you to the cafeteria folk who fed you as a kid!