Bob Gottlieb: Why the School Cafeteria Staff Can Be So Important

Robert Gottlieb is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College in Los Angeles.  Ann first started working with Bob 12 years ago on improving school food, and met with him recently at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Vermont, where Bob, long interested in food justice issues, introduced Ann to folks from the Real Food Real Jobs campaign. He agreed to write a guest blog for us — highlighting why the cafeteria staff can be so important in changing school food.

Robert “Bob” Gottlieb is the author or co-author of twelve books, including “Food Justice” (co-authored with Anupama Joshi, MIT Press). He has been engaged in helping transform the school food environment since 1993 and helped initiate the first Farm to School program in 1997 in Santa Monica where he first met Rodney Taylor who was the food service director at the Santa Monica school district. He sees the role of the cafeteria worker and food service director alike as central to the agenda for change in school food.


by Bob Gottlieb

Those involved in transforming school food and making farm to school programs successful often look to the Riverside Unified School District and its Food Service Director, Rodney Taylor, as a wonderful model. I’ve known Rodney more than fifteen years when our Urban & Environmental Policy Institute explored one of the first farm to school programs in Santa Monica where Rodney was food service director at the time.

Though the Riverside program has gotten attention for the systematic way that Rodney ratcheted up a farm to school salad bar in the District’s elementary schools (29 in all), what is less well known and equally as crucial is how he has empowered his school food service staff to be connected to and feel ownership over the changes that have happened.

Rodney recently shared with various farm to school advocates this letter he received from a Latina parent at one of the elementary schools. The letter is a powerful illustration of the role that cafeteria workers can play, if given the opportunity. Rodney let me know that it would be good to share the letter with an even broader audience.

Here’s what the parent wrote:

“To whom it may concern:

I am not typically the type of person to address an issue, but I also believe if a job is well done, then the people involved need to be congratulated.  My son is a student at Hawthorne elementary and I have been very impressed with this school’s cafeteria.  I called the school last week and I was told that I should contact Nutrition Services with my comments. During Back to School Night my son took me on tour of his new school.  I had the chance to see a sample of the salad bar and its healthy options.  The woman who demonstrated the salad bar seemed very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  I did not realize what an impact someone like this would have on my son in the near future. What I am so happy about is that my son comes home from school telling me about the healthy choices he is making at lunch time.  He told me that last week he tried jicama for the first time and he loves it.  I have offered him money to buy snacks but he tells me how fun Miss Sandy makes the salad bar and how she plays this veggie game with the students to get them to try different foods.   I am not sure what she does to make my son eat healthy but this woman needs to be congratulated on her excellent relationship with the students!  I am a concerned parent about my son’s health and eating habits and I cannot tell you how pleased I am that there are people such as this Miss Sandy who makes eating healthy fun for my son. Keep up the good work!”

When Rodney read the letter he knew it had to be shared and this is what he said when he shared it with others: “All of us in the work that we do are changing perceptions about school food service and changing children’s eating behaviors in a powerful way, whether that involves Farm to School advocates, the Food Service Director, the Chefs who can actually prepare meals from scratch, or the Cafeteria Workers who can communicate directly to the children who walk through the cafeteria lines!”

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