By James Carr
Betti Wiggins has done it all in the world of farm to school.
Wiggins became Executive Director of Food Services for Detroit Public Schools in 2009 and completely transformed the food her students eat, as well as how it gets to the cafeteria. Whether it is one of the many school gardens–including gardens at Drew Transition Center, a school for students with disabilities–or partnerships with local farmers, Detroit’s students are eating fresher, healthier food across the board.
Wiggins is so committed to locally produced food, it became a mild annoyance that she had to get apples from Ohio.
To put it mildly, Wiggins is a farm to school superstar–so much so, that while we interviewed her in preparation for her keynote address at the 2017 Farm to School Summit in Augusta this October, Wiggins revealed some breaking news: She’d just been head hunted by Houston Public Schools, and would be leaving her position in Detroit.
The question on our mind–and, by this point, surely yours as well–is, how did she pull it off?
One of her first actions was to transition school nutrition from a food service management company to Detroit Public Schools, so she could have greater control over the food that entered the building, and how it got there. This is one of the main reasons Houston decided she was the perfect person for their school system, as well.
But the program truly flourished because of strong partnerships.
“I believe in the three P’s: Private, public and philanthropic,” Wiggins told Georgia Organics.
By utilizing resources already around her, such as Michigan State University Extension, Greener Detroit, and the National Farm to School Network, Wiggins was able to build support that grew like microgreens in a greenhouse.
Now, her supporters include Chase Bank, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kimbal Musk–brother of tech entrepreneur Elon Musk–as well as local restaurants.
Starting small, Wiggins says, is extremely important.
“The first thing I did was partner with the science department about education and food literacy,” said Wiggins.
It was an important building block. Faced with students who thought watermelons came from Kroger, Wiggins knew she had a bigger problem than healthy food. If students did not understand what kind of food was put in front of them, they weren’t likely to eat it.
From there, Wiggins got the Parent-Teacher Association on board, along with the superintendent.
Once she built enthusiasm in the district, had a base to build on, and ventured outside her comfort zone. Wiggins became an unstoppable force.
“[If] you get a community committed, you’ll be surprised the things you can do,” said Wiggins.
Now, her students are pointing out the difference between cherry tomatoes and sungolds to their parents. They understand how to grow food without fertilizers, how to save seeds, why heirloom varieties are so important–and so tasty.
They even understand the business of food, thanks to a summer youth employment program.
Ready for some more good news? After a recent, enthusiastic conversation with Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Wiggins sees big potential in Georgia.
“I truly like what Georgia is doing,” said Wiggins.
In October, we’ll get the chance to learn how we can do even more.
Registration for the 6th Georgia Farm to School Summit on October 5-6, 2017 in Augusta, Ga is now underway! Early bird registration ends June 16. Sign up today to reserve your spot.