Listen Along with HSC: Inside School Food Observes MLK Day with Audrey Rowe

January 26, 2015

In observance of Martin Luther King Day, host Laura Stanley talks with Audrey Rowe, administrator of Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) for the USDA.

Here at HSC, we love a good conversation about school food. In part, that’s because it’s about so much more than it seems. The topic of school food connects to issues as wide-ranging as health disparities, transportation systems, farming practices and our values as a society.


Now, we have a new place to indulge our love for a lunchroom chat: the Inside School Food radio program. The show is hosted by Laura Stanley, a food journalist, school food advocate and longtime friend of HSC. It’s a treat to follow along as she delves into the details of school food with a diverse group of interesting and engaging guests. The episodes are brief, entertaining and informative. We fully recommend it! You can listen live (Mondays at 11 a.m. EST) or download the episodes and listen later. We’ll be sharing our thoughts and observations on a few episodes here on HSC’s blog.

Today, we listen to the Martin Luther King Day episode: Serving food justice at school: A conversation with Audrey Rowe.

School food is a social justice issue. It’s a simple fact that shapes the context for much of what we do here at Healthy Schools Campaign, from our work with parents in Chicago’s minority communities to our national advocacy for a strong reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. Yet it’s a fact that’s often absent from popular dialogue, both in conversations about school food and conversations about equity and justice. This episode of Inside School Food is a powerful exception. 

In observance of Martin Luther King Day, host Laura Stanley talks with Audrey Rowe, administrator of Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) for the USDA, a role that includes leading “FNS efforts to end hunger and obesity” through the school meals program and 14 other programs including the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC). Over the years, Audrey Rowe has been a champion of HSC’s efforts and has made time to meet with parents and students involved in HSC’s on-the-ground work in Chicago.

Laura opens the program noting that this day “really speaks to the heart and soul of all the content you hear on Inside School Food.” The subsequent conversation lives up to the breadth of that promise, covering topics that range from the history of school food to community eligibility and the latest efforts to bring chefs’ culinary expertise into school meal planning and preparation.

While the topics of school food and social justice can be broad, Stanley and Rowe ground it from the beginning in a clear focus on child hunger, health and opportunity. The school meal program’s roots go back to Depression-era efforts to feed millions of hungry schoolchildren. Today, more than 21 million students take part in the program. A recent report from the Southern Education Foundation shows that 51 percent of the nation’s students now qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

“We’re still addressing the same need,” Rowe explains. “We’re addressing the needs of children who are in lower socioeconomic families, families who do not have the resources to provide a meal, what’s more a healthy meal, for their child. We still have children who are going to bed at night, on a weekend certainly, not sure what meals they are going to be able to have during the weekend.”

After a long weekend such as the weekend attached to Martin Luther King Day, she says, she sees young children arrive to school early for breakfast.

When the conversation moves to school breakfast, Rowe cites the Chicago Public Schools decision to roll out breakfast in the classroom across the district despite early objections from parents who didn’t perceive the need in their communities. Parents in HSC’s Parents United for Healthy Schools program advocated strongly for this effort and supported its implementation at the school level. Today, it’s a success across the city.

One of the reasons for its success, Rowe explains, is that educators very quickly observe the benefits for learning. Students who have access to healthy food are better prepared to learn. It’s something we focus on in our work in Chicago, in our work to address the achievement gap through the National Collaborative on Health and Education, in our advocacy for a health-promoting national school meals program and many other efforts. When students have a healthy meal, they are better prepared to face the school day. When that meal comes along with lessons to support lifetime healthy habits, they are also better prepared for success outside of the classroom.

It’s a conversation we expect to hear more about in the year ahead, as the debate around reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act begins to heat up. Rowe emphasizes the solvable nature of the challenges involved in providing nutritious and appealing school food, and expresses her hope that we as a nation will commit to finding solutions rather than abandoning the school lunch program’s promise that all children have access to healthy food at school.

“Every child should have access to food that is good, that tastes good and is healthy for them. I think that’s a right and a responsibility of the nation,” she says. “Food justice means that every child can have access to food that is healthy, nourishing and nutritious.”