“A hero is a man who does what he can.” -Romain Rolland
Early in April Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook, emailed me with a link to an April 6th article from his blog: A Teacher Crusades for Better School Food and Gets Stomped. If I ever had to justify why I am anonymous, there was the proof in her story. I was floored by what Ms. Heaps went through, but I know my professional life would follow a similar route if my real identity is revealed.
I contacted Ed directly because I wanted the email address of this remarkable individual. We’ve exchanged some emails now and have formed a fast friendship. I asked Mendy Heaps if she would answer a few questions for the blog. She agreed and here are her surprising responses:
1. Tell the readers a little about yourself
I was born in Illinois and lived there until about 10 years ago when I moved west to Wyoming and then Colorado. I have two wonderful kids, three super-adorable grandkids, a (very!) patient and loving husband, three terrific sisters, and an amazing mother. I am very lucky to have such an awesome family.
I feel like I’m not a typical teacher because I got my degree when I was older. In fact, I graduated from college the same year my daughter graduated from high school. I had many different jobs when my kids were growing up – secretary, forklift driver, warehouse employee, and for many years I had a daycare in my home. When I got my education degree in 1996, it was quite an accomplishment for me. I respect what I do very much and I think I’m lucky to have such a great job.
2. What do you love about teaching?
The kids are by far the very best part of teaching! I love teaching my 7th graders. They’re up – they’re down – they’re sassy – and there’s some drama every day. I never thought I would like middle school, because I really wanted to teach lower elementary kids. When I began teaching, however, my first job was teaching 7th and 8th grade and now I’m too mean and sarcastic to teach anything else (not really). Most of my days with middle school kids are very, very good and I love that.
3. How did you incorporate healthy eating into your lessons? I read that you were motivated to talk to your students about nutrition and healthy eating because of your husband’s health issues. How is your husband doing these days?
I teach in a middle school and part of the middle school philosophy is teaching integrated units with other teachers. When the science teachers in my building approached me and asked me to teach a unit on nutrition with them, I thought it was a great idea. We talked with the principal and he got subs for us so we could have a day to plan the unit at school. All of us were excited to be able to teach something so timely and important together.
I found a teacher’s book for 6-8th graders called Planet Health written by the Harvard University School of Public Health. It contained nutrition lessons for science, social studies, P.E., math and language arts. I used the lessons for language arts and tied all of them to the Colorado State Reading and Writing Standards. They were great lessons and the kids were very interested and motivated to do the reading and writing they required. They also complemented very well what students were learning in science.
Before we started teaching the unit, we met with the principal and the district food services director to voice some concerns we had. We knew that what we would be teaching our students in the nutrition unit was going to clash with what was going on in our cafeteria, and none of us were thrilled with the idea of sending a mixed message. (You know – Don’t eat junk food even though the school sells it to you every day in the cafeteria!)
That meeting was a huge disappointment. We were told kids would not buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We pled our case by explaining that when middle school kids are faced with the choice of a bag of Cheetos or a chocolate chip muffin or an ice cream sandwich or an apple…the apple usually loses because of the stiff competition! We also pointed out that some kids were eating ONLY from the junk food window and we knew the junk food was causing behavior issues for a lot of our kids. (We had started a rotating class schedule that year because the classes after lunch were hyper and crazy for half the class and then crashed and got sleepy for the other half.) We thought we had some pretty good arguments for getting rid of the junk food, but they were all shot down. Our only small victory from the meeting was that the Little Debbie snack cakes were not sold any more.
After that meeting, I sent emails to a couple of school board members asking them to come and check out what was being sold to kids in the cafeteria. As far as I know, they haven’t ever visited the cafeteria to look at the junk food being sold.
(Second part of #3) Eight years ago I met a wonderful, funny man, and we got married (one of the best days of my life!). Just a couple of couple years after we married, however, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, then type II diabetes, and then high blood pressure. Most of his health problems could be traced to how he had eaten most of his life. He was a police officer and for him that meant donuts and fast food. He rarely (and I mean rarely) ate fruits or vegetables, never drank water (only soda and coffee) and he ate lots of processed foods. I got him to make a few changes in his diet when we got married, but when you eat a certain way for most of your life, it’s very hard to change. He also wasn’t fat, so he thought he was pretty healthy. And he actually he had been pretty healthy until all the problems started. Many times people don’t take action until something affects them directly. When my husband got sick, that’s when I became compelled to try and change what I truly believed was wrong.
When I first started teaching in Elizabeth about 9 years ago, I was disgusted with what kids could buy in the cafeteria. Alongside the lunch, kids could buy soda, chips, snack cakes, candy bars, ice cream, donuts, etc. This was all available before school also. (It was much worse 9 years ago than it is today.) At the school in Illinois where I had taught previously for three years, there were two choices – hot lunch or bring your own from home. There was no “concession stand” running during lunch time where kids could buy junk food and the school could make some extra money. Even 9 years ago that school knew the connection between health, behavior, learning, and what kids were eating.
I remember asking the other teachers in Elizabeth about the junk food when I first started teaching there. I got the feeling that no one really liked it, but it had always been there and since it was a great money maker, it wasn’t going away.
4. When did the “fruit cart” idea come to you? How did the students receive that idea?
I began by making water available in my classroom. Very few of my students ever drank water. They drank lots of Gatorade, soda, fruit punch – those kinds of drinks, but they hardly ever drank water! I would (and still do) fill up a 5-gallon jug with water and ice each day, and encourage students to drink during class and come in during the day to refill their water bottles. Then I began selling apples during class because it seemed that many of my students were hungry. Even though we have very few kids on free and reduced lunches, we have many, many kids who come to school without eating breakfast or they eat something that doesn’t stay with them until lunch time. Later on I added whatever fruits or veggies I could find that I could sell for a quarter or fifty cents. I also added cheese sticks, granola bars and popcorn. After I read about all the not-so-good “stuff” in microwave popcorn, I decided to stick to the fruit, veggies, granola bars and cheese sticks.
Kids knew the rules about the snacks and because they wanted to eat, I had very few issues with anyone making a mess. Classroom behavior improved. Kids who have trouble settling down or concentrating are sometimes just hungry. Can anyone concentrate or think about language arts when they’re hungry? Around this time period, I also started forwarding to the staff at my school and the district food services director, articles, websites and anything interesting about kids and nutrition I came across. I was hoping to educate people about the huge push in our country to change what kids were eating at school.
Pretty soon kids were stopping in my classroom between periods to buy snacks and coming from other grade levels (6th and 8th grade) to buy something from me to eat. I was making 2 or 3 trips a week to Sam’s Club to buy food – it was crazy. Teachers were coming to my room with baskets so they could sell whatever I had in their classrooms too.
Because so many kids were visiting my room for snacks, one day I simply decided to take the snacks to them. I took the cart my overhead projector sat on and put a nice red-flowered table cloth on it. I made some signs that said “Fruit Cart” and I got some kids to take the cart around during the last period of the day to any classroom that would let them in (some teachers didn’t want it). The Fruit Cart was born!
Everyone knew about the Fruit Cart. It stopped in the office every day before it went all over the school building. I made announcements in the morning before school reminding kids to save their quarters, and if I ran out of food and the cart didn’t make it to every classroom, I heard about it the next day from all the kids who didn’t get to buy fruit. I had kids fighting to take it around to the classrooms and I had to make a schedule so everyone would get a turn. One year the Fruit Cart got its very own page in the EMS yearbook. In the meantime, I was still emailing and forwarding everyone in the school all the good info I could find about nutrition.
Just when the trips to Sam’s Club to buy fruit were becoming overwhelming, I met some parents who offered to help me. I didn’t know it at the time, but they own a produce distribution agency in Denver. Soon they began delivering 5 – 6 boxes of fruit and vegetables to my room every Wednesday. I never knew exactly what I was going to get, so I got it at a discount. Many times I got strawberries, pears, blueberries, oranges and carrots. I had kids who had never seen pears before! My sister gave me a small fridge to put in my classroom so I could keep things cold. Every Wednesday at lunch I had volunteers putting strawberries and carrots in little baggies we could sell for a quarter. I felt good that kids were getting involved by helping me, and I loved the fact that they were able to buy a snack that I knew was good for them. A lot of kids bought fruit and took it home for their siblings. (I got some great feedback from parents that I tried to turn into an organized effort to get rid of the school’s junk food, but all my efforts with parents fell flat!)
5. In your opinion what if anything went wrong?
I did what I thought would work. I thought educating people by emailing information about all the great things other schools all over the country were doing would create some interest and support. I started the Fruit Cart to show everyone that kids would buy fruits and vegetables if we made them available without junk food alongside. I also talked and talked to people – they got sick of me – but no one felt as passionate about making the needed changes as I did. Because of all I’d been through with my husband, I felt a real urgency to move quickly to change what I knew was wrong. Elizabeth has wonderful kids…what school doesn’t? I felt that if we could get our kids (and maybe their families also) to eat better, we could make a positive difference not only in our school, but in the Elizabeth community as well.
6. I read that you were “punished” by the principal. What happened? How is that going now?
In May of 2009, I was called to the principal’s office. The principal had a “Personnel Memo” waiting for me on his desk. As I read through it, I couldn’t believe it. The memo contained a list of directives I was being ordered to follow. The list ordered me to: treat all district employees with respect, spend 15 minutes every day in the cafeteria to keep statistics on what kids were eating for lunch, find out the economic cost to the district of eliminating the junk food window (the Grab and Go) at the middle school, get all of my integrated teaching units approved by the principal, meet with the food services director so she could educate me about the “economic realities” of our district food services and…I had to stop the Fruit Cart. At the end of the list it said, “Failure to comply with these directives could result in further disciplinary actions.” I was absolutely devastated. I had never been trouble and I didn’t like it! I felt it was very, very unfair but I was afraid not to sign it.
A couple of weeks later I took the memo to the school board meeting. I met that night with the principal, the school board members and the superintendent. The board thanked me for trying to get kids to eat better, but nothing else was done. I did get one board member interested in the junk food issue and she agreed to attend the meeting I was scheduled to have with the food services director in June.
The meeting with the food services director went very much the same as our previous meeting. She said – Kids need treats…we’ve made lots of changes…students have to have choices to learn to make good decisions…our chips are baked…all the same arguments as before.
I said – Type II Diabetes…Heart Disease…Cancer…let’s teach them to eat fruits and vegetables…are baked chips really good for kids?…and I kept asking…Why do we sell junk food to kids when we know it is not good for them? When we know it can harm them down the road?
“We have a philosophical difference.” That was the only answer I received.
The only concessions offered to me at that meeting were that I could pick three items which would no longer be sold at the Grab and Go window, and I would have a place on the new committee for district wellness. One of the items I picked was the fruit roll-ups and they were being sold at the window within a couple of months of school starting the following August. When the new district committee was formed, I was not asked to be a part of it. Also at the meeting, the principal agreed that he would try to find someone else to operate the Fruit Cart as a fund raiser. That never happened either. The Fruit Cart has not operated since I was ordered to stop. Kids still ask me why I stopped and why we don’t have it any more and I don’t really know what to say. The school board member who was somewhat interested in helping me has since retired. Before she left the board, I had a conversation with her about how the fruit roll-ups were back and I told her how no one wanted to do the Fruit Cart because they were afraid (remember the memo?). She told me that she helped as much as she could and I should be glad that things weren’t worse then they were.
After that conversation, I decided to meet with our new superintendent and new district curriculum director to get their thoughts on the memo and the junk food window. The new superintendent told me, “Our parents and students are our consumers and they dictate what is sold in our cafeterias.” OK…that was it. I didn’t have any where else to go. In February, I sent each of the board members another letter along with a copy of the District Wellness Policy (which is not being followed) and a couple of photos of some very unappealing lunches, and I didn’t hear back from any of them!
7. How are things at your school these days?
Things are interesting at school. A few teachers secretly support me. Several teachers, who agreed with me about the junk food before the memo, have completely deserted me. And there are others who won’t even speak to me because they think I’ve made the school (and them) look bad. When I got the memo, everyone became afraid and I’ve often wondered if that was the whole purpose of it.
8. Do you have any regrets or things you would do differently?
That’s a tough question. This has certainly caused me a lot of stress, but what do you do when no one will listen to you? With everything that is in the news, with all that I’ve read – my goodness…the military is even complaining because they can’t find any healthy recruits any more! I felt strongly about this and I took action.
I often wish one of the more popular teachers would have taken this on, but I was the only one who felt the need to try and get things changed. I’ve lost some friends and I don’t like that and it’s hard to read and hear the things some people say, but I can’t go back and change what I did.
9. What do you want other teachers to know? And students?
I want other teachers to think about doing something! We spend so much time planning units and lessons, reading books, gathering important student data, taking classes, attending meeting after meeting…all to help our students. But what good will all of that do if we don’t give kids what they need to be healthy? Teachers can play a major role in shaping our students’ future health. Look at what is being sold in your cafeteria and don’t be afraid to speak out. We have to be concerned about our students. Please don’t underestimate your importance!
10. What do you think the US needs to do to curb bad school food?
First of all, I think we need a ban on all junk food sold in public schools. It’s absolutely ridiculous and unconscionable with all the knowledge we have that schools are allowed to make money by selling junk food to kids. Many people have the attitude that now is not the time because every school needs money. If not now, when? Schools are always going to need money and we have to stop thinking it is OK to sacrifice our children’s health for a few extra bucks. I don’t want the students I have now to grow up and look back and think…why did they let us eat like that when they knew it wasn’t good for us? We do know better! There is new information almost daily that confirms what we need to do to help our kids stay healthy. Official indifference is not acceptable. We must do it.
11. Anything else you would like to tell the readers?
I would like to tell your readers that I need help! More of us – teachers, parents and students too – need to speak out and get this fixed. The sooner the better! Write letters, blog (Go Mrs. Q!) or just talk to people every chance you get. Form a group and go from there. Start by getting rid of everything in the cafeteria that isn’t healthy food for kids. Treats and “sweets” do not have to be junk food. Teach kids what is good for them by selling only what is good for them! It may require changing the way kids (and adults too) think, but that’s OK. That’s what needs to happen.
I’m not particularly articulate or brave or smart. I am simply someone who knows what can happen later in life if you don’t learn to eat healthy. Why wouldn’t I share what I’ve learned? I know others feel the same way and I want them to do something to help.
Thanks, Mrs. Q! I love what you are doing. You have made many, many people aware of things that need to change. You have put this “problem” out there and because of you people are thinking and talking and things are starting to change. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell my (long) story!
***Mrs. Q: Now that’s a real hero. I’m so appreciative of what all of your efforts. I believe you are a pioneer. Great job! ***