Profile: Miguel Villarreal, Novato Unified School District
Editor's note: This week we are profiling a few of the wonderful people we met at the 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin last week. More than 1,100 farm to cafeteria movers and shakers gathered for four days of inspiring field trips, workshops, keynotes and more. we are excited to share their stories.
Working for pint-size athletes
At 5 years old, Miguel Villarreal hated beets. He was born into a family of migrant farm workers, and his disdain for the vegetable stemmed from hoeing them.
Education was serious business in Miguel’s family. Though his mom stopped going to school after the 6th grade, she told all of her kids: “you are going to college.” They studied hard during the school year, but in the summers they were all back in the fields. They learned what hard work was, and from a young age, Miguel knew he did not want to work in the fields any longer than he had to.
After graduating from high school, Miguel did go to college where he studied to be a nutritionist. He wanted to work with professional athletes, but when he saw a job posting for a school nutritionist, he thought he’d apply. He got the job and has been in that field ever since. Miguel quips that while he did not did not follow his passion of being a nutritionist for professional athletes, he works for pint-size athletes instead.
Miguel’s career began in a Dallas school where the schedule left him enough free time in the evening to earn a masters degree. But he really liked the work he was doing, so he started applying for food service director positions. He was thrilled to find a job in Victoria, Texas where he would serve 12,000 kids. After three years, he moved to Plano, Texas and served 20,000 kids. During the six years he was there, the district ballooned to 45,000 kids.
Miguel’s heart and passion have always been in nutrition, but his 20-year career in Texas left him unfulfilled.
“I was focused on managing the bottom line and not the students’ waist lines,” he says. “We were being asked to generate revenue by super sizing, selling soda and any junk food the kids would buy to bring in money.”
He'd had enough and quit.
Miguel moved to California and got a job selling software to schools. That company had to downsize during the recession, and he found himself unemployed. He eventually found a new job as school food manager for Novato School District in California. At first, he was less than enthused about his new position. “I was in a smaller office, in a smaller district and I said ‘man, I’m moving backwards.’ But after having a pity party for a couple days, I chose to accept my new reality,” he says.
Ready for change in California
Miguel looked around and saw he was in Marin county. He saw that there were a lot of farmers and that people generally really cared about their health and that they were active ... or so he thought. He happened to attend a meeting at which the Health and Human Services Department of Marin County presented the statistics on childhood obesity. What he learned was that 35 percent of students in his district were overweight. “I heard her say it, and I saw it in the graph, and it blew my whole image of California,” he says. “We've got a problem.”
Back at the office, Miguel looked at the menu and went line by line to examine what they were selling. The first thing he saw that didn't make any sense was soda. So he got rid of soda.
Getting rid of soda also meant getting rid of a $70,000 annual revenue stream for the district. He told his business manager that he would find a way to make up the difference. At the time, only 200 of 1,600 potential free-or-reduced lunch students were eating breakfast. Since the government pays for each meal eaten by students who qualify for the program, increasing the number of students eating breakfast at school would serve a dual purpose: It would help to make sure they got a good, nutritious breakfast, and it would generate new revenue.
Miguel’s strategy was to make breakfast part of the school day. He persuaded the administration to create a nutrition break after the first class ended around 9 a.m. They went from 200 to 1,200 students eating breakfast each day, creating more than $70,000 in new revenue and, more importantly, providing 1,000 more kids with a good breakfast. Soda was out, and breakfast was in.
Time to learn more and find partners
After this success, Miguel decided that to take on other parts of the problem. He quickly realized that he needed to get out in the community and meet the other people who were involved in the system he was trying to change. He attended meetings, found books to read and became a sponge for information. As his understanding expanded, he felt he had an obligation and a responsibility to do something. Maya Angelou says "you do your best until you know better, and when you know better you do better." It became a personal mantra.
Miguel also knew he couldn't do it alone. He spent 2003 and 2004 networking and finding coalitions. That led him to Marin Organic, a non-profit organization near his school district. The executive director at the time was Helga Hellberg. He taught Miguel that 20 percent of crops were being tilled under because of blemishes that would have made them unsalable in the market. At the same time Helga was looking for a way to use this extra produce, Miguel was looking for a way to buy food from local farms. It was a serendipitous match.
They started a gleaning program. Once the perfect-looking produce had been harvested, students and their families would go through the fields for a second round of harvest to gather food that was perfect in every way except appearance. They established a distribution system that allowed food to be gleaned on Monday, delivered to schools on Tuesday and served on Wednesday. The program is still running today, but the deliveries are now sent to local food banks.
Miguel estimates that in his 20 years in Texas, he had met five teachers. Through a large number of lunch meetings (with food provided), he met every single teacher in the Novato district - all 400 of them - in his first few years in Marin County. As his coalitions grew, five different universities began to send interns to help out and learn what was going on.
From food service director to wellness director
Miguel is now focused on transforming the role of a food service director into that of wellness director. He and his colleagues in other school districts influence so many areas of school and education – indeed, food service is about much more than food.
It was in Food Justice, a book co-authored by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi (executive director and co-founder of NFSN), that Miguel first learned about the 3 C’s of farm to school: cafeteria, classroom and community. The idea grew on Miguel, and now he uses it to explain what he does at work every day. Miguel’s concern for the environment, the health of his students, California’s water crisis and the overall carbon footprint of his operation are the things that drive him on. The less processed foods are and the more plant-based his meals are, the better they tend to be in each of his areas of concern.
This year, the superintendent and the community have asked Miguel to do what he has done in Novato for the rest of the schools in the county. That means 18 school districts are about to collaborate to recast the food service director as the wellness director.
Miguel emphasizes that none of this is the result of the efforts of one person, but he asserts that it only takes one person to get started. Miguel believes that there needs to be someone doing this work in every community in America.
For people seeking to make changes in their school district, Miguel offers this advice: “Break the huge tasks down into smaller, manageable programs. Take this thing we call school lunch, and ask, ‘what one thing can I do today?’ Start. Even if it is at just one school. But do it well. Celebrate the success and do the next thing tomorrow.”