As a mother of three and Chief Executive Officer at the Chef Ann Foundation, Mara Fleishman fights for healthier school lunches both at home and in the boardroom. In 2006, Fleishman moved her family from Boston, Massachusetts, to Boulder, Colorado, and was shocked by the significantly lower public education funding in her new state. (In 2014, Colorado spent US$8,985 per pupil compared to Massachusetts’ US$15,087 per pupil.) The discrepancy showed in the cafeteria, where her daughter ate microwavable waffle sticks, artificial maple syrup, and syrupy canned pears. Fleishman decided to use her expertise and outrage to join the healthy school lunch movement being championed by celebrity chefs and parent-teacher associations alike.
Food Tank sat down with Ms. Fleishman to discuss the cafeteria crisis and her work with the Chef Ann Foundation.
Food Tank (FT): How did you begin fighting against childhood obesity and malnutrition in the cafeteria?
Mara Fleishman (MF): When my daughter was in kindergarten in Boulder, Colorado, I remember visiting for lunch one day and questioning how the teacher would handle a class of 30 five-year-olds after a sugar-packed meal. I began working with a local parent/community group that was trying to change school food. We raised funds to bring Ann Cooper from Berkeley, California, to talk to the Boulder Valley School Administration. After that meeting, I was sold!
I was working for Whole Foods Markets at the time overseeing partnerships and funding for national non-profits. When Ann and I met in 2009, she asked if Whole Foods would help her start a foundation to gain some momentum on school food reform. She was concerned that if we didn’t have a national partner to help schools create healthier food, then we would never make a dent in the issue. I was able to work with the Whole Foods Marketing team to create the first national fundraiser for school food reform. From those funds, Ann launched the Chef Ann Foundation and built Lunchbox.org, a support portal for schools.
In 2013, after thirteen years with Whole Foods, I decided to switch gears and run the Foundation. It became increasingly difficult to get excited about bringing higher quality food to middle- and upper-class consumers while kids in schools were struggling to access healthy options.
FT: What is unique about the Chef Ann Foundation’s approach to these issues?
MF: The Foundation’s approach utilizes our expertise in school food operations to connect school meal providers with the resources, funding, and personal technical support to change their operations. We help them move from heat-and-serve to cook-from-scratch meals. It can be daunting for a district that serves 10,000 heat-and-serve meals per day to shift to fresh prep, so the Foundation teaches staff how to procure, prepare and store fresh food using proper equipment and a sustainable financial model. Many steps go into making the change, and that is where we can help.
FT: The Chef Ann Foundation runs four programs designed to tackle various barriers to healthy childhood diets. Where have you seen the greatest successes?
MF: The Foundation’s programs work on a continuum to help schools move toward the end goal of a fully cook-from-scratch operation. Not all schools are ready to jump into a complete overhaul all at once, but with the educational tools in the School Food Support Initiative, they can begin the process.
Our Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program helps schools kick-off a salad bar program and build the commitment and stakeholder support necessary for large-scale change. With our Let’s Move! Partners, we have been able to place nearly 5,000 salad bars into schools in every state. The last evaluation showed that schools that implement salad bars increase their purchases of fresh fruits and veggies by 78 percent. Since our first installment in 2009, salad bars in schools have become an accepted component to school lunch.
FT: Who are your food heroes (individuals or organizations)?
MF: I have many food heroes. Having started my career in food in 2001, I have been able to collaborate on and witness many huge strides in supporting better food. Ann Cooper tops the list for me. Kids from low-income families receive nearly sixty-five percent of the thirty million school lunches served daily. Ann has fought for the last twenty years to ensure these children get access to fresh, healthy food. I have never seen anyone work harder than her. She is up at 4 AM and from her day job as Nutrition Services Director to speaking all over the world to being the Founder and President of the Board of the Chef Ann Foundation, she never stops. She approaches every task with integrity and drive to ensure our kids have foundations for success.
FT: What advice do you give to busy parents who struggle to find the time to cook healthy meals for their families?
MF: I have three kids and a full-time job so I understand busy. For me, it all comes down to planning. On Sundays I prep meals for the week depending on our family’s schedule. Healthy meals don’t have to be complicated; tonight I’m cooking chicken schnitzel with wild rice (from a box) and artichokes. The kids love dipping the artichoke leaves in butter and usually, they are gone before I get my hands on a leaf.
FT: What does the Chef Ann Foundation have in store for the coming year?
MF: This year, the Chef Ann Foundation will launch a new set of online learning courses. With the support of the Colorado Health Foundation, we will be launching seven courses for school food service operators. Chef Ann Cooper will lead these modules, delving into key areas of school food operations as they relate to implementing a cook-from-scratch operation. This online institute will allow us to provide more school food service workers with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to create change in their districts.
Regarding existing programming, the Foundation will announce the recipients of our 2017 School Food Support Initiative grant later this month. This impactful grant, supported by Whole Kids Foundation and Lifetime Foundation, supports up to seven school districts through the process of converting to a scratch-cook program. We project that our Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Program will place 500 salad bars in schools this year and, with the help of our Project Produce grants, expand fruit and vegetable trial and education.