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A teacher openly crusades for better school food—and gets seared

Mendy Heaps, a stellar English teacher for years, had never given much thought to the food her seventh-graders were eating. Then her husband, after years of eating junk food, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes ,and high blood pressure and suddenly the french fries, pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria at rural Elizabeth Middle School outside Denver, Col., took on a whole new meaning.

Colorado teacher Mendy Heap: dangerous lunchroom radical--or fruit-cart-pushing concerned citizen?Colorado teacher Mendy Heap: dangerous lunchroom radical--or fruit-cart-pushing concerned citizen?Heaps was roused to action. She started teaching nutrition in her language-arts classes. She bombarded colleagues, administrators and the local school board with e-mails and news clippings urging them to overhaul the school menu. She even took up selling fresh fruits and healthy snacks to the students on her own, wheeling alternative foods from classroom to classroom on a makeshift "fruit cart," doling out apples for a quarter a pop.

Finally, the school's principal, Robert McMullen, could abide Heaps' food crusade no longer. Under threat of being fired, Heaps says she was forced to sign a personnel memorandum agreeing to cease and desist. She was ordered to undergo a kind of cafeteria re-education program, wherein she was told to meet with the school's food services director, spend part of each day on lunch duty recording what foods the students ate, and compile data showing the potential economic impact of removing from the menu the "grab and go" foods Heaps found so objectionable.

"It was humiliating to stand in the cafeteria in front of the kids and the other teachers every day 'collecting data,' " Heaps says. "I called it my penance."

Heaps' husband, Robert Heaps, a retired police officer, said his wife is paying the price for rocking the boat in a small town. "Unfortunately, she works in a semi-rural district in a tight-knit community where change isn't always at the top of the list of things to do," he said. "My only concern for Mendy is that it seems she is fighting a losing battle. I don't care to see rifts created between her and the school board or the administration over an issue as important as this. I suspect she could become a target and subjected to hostile work conditions. But she appears to be up against a brick wall."

McMullen, the school's principal, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The case of Mendy Heaps is a stark reminder that at least one voice is largely missing from the debate over school food that's getting so much attention lately: the voice of teachers. Teachers see what kids eat every day. They have opinions about the the food and how it impacts children's health and school performance. Yet they are almost universally silent.

With one notable exception: An Illinois teacher recently created an internet sensation by blogging anonymously and publishing photos about her self-imposed diet of cafeteria food. Calling herself "Mrs. Q," she frequently writes about her fear that she could be fired for exposing what kids are eating every day at school.

As I was gathering information for this report, Heaps said her local teachers union urged her to stop talking to me. "The union rep in my building came to my classroom and 'begged' me to stop everything I was doing," Heaps wrote in an e-mail. "She insisted they will find a way to 'get rid of me' and there is nothing the union will do to help me. HOW'S THAT FOR SUPPORT!!!"

Heaps says it isn't so much the food served in the federally subsidized cafeteria line that concerns her most, although that's bad enough: "Mashed potatoes and corn are usually served more than anything else, along with breaded chicken nuggets, chicken patties, and chicken tenders," she said. "Hamburger patties are also served a lot--drenched in canned gravy with mashed potatoes sitting on top of a slice of bread or on a bun with a serving of corn or green beans."

Students who choose the subisidized meal are also entitled to a salad bar. But only a small percentage of students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on family income and apparently fewer still choose to pay for the federally supported food. According to Heaps, some say they are embarrassed to be seen in the subsidized food line.

No, what really makes her blood boil are the alternate foods sold in what the school calls the "deli" line or "grab and go": Pizza, corn dogs, Subway sandwiches, Chick-fil-A, Cheetos, nachos, fruit rollups, ice cream sandwiches and especially the "healthy" fries. "They call them 'healthy' because they're baked!" Heaps says. According to numbers she compiled while assigned to the cafeteria, somewhat fewer than half the 170 students in seventh grade bring lunch from home. Only a very small number--15 to 24--eat the reimbursible "hot lunch," she said. Between 25 and 30 do not eat, and the rest--58 to 78--purchase food at the "grab and go."

It reminded Heaps too much of her husband's lousy diet. "When I met him about nine years ago, the only liquids that passed his lips were Pepsi and coffee and sometimes orange juice. He never ate fruit or vegetbles or dank water. The folks at McDonald's and Krispy Kreme knew him by his first name," Heaps said. "If he did cook for himself, it was processed food--[frozen] pizza, pot pies, hot pockets, hot dogs, canned soups and chili, lots of chips and Hostess cupcakes...Bob had no knowledge of nutrition--tomato sauce and french fries were vegetables, Wonder bread was vitamin fortified, and apple pie was the same thing as eating an apple."

Robert Heaps was diagnosed with kidney stones and while he was being treated for that he was found to have bladder cancer. He underwent surgery three times to remove tumors, each time followed by weeks of chemo-therapy. Subsequently he was found to be suffering Type II diabetes and high blood pressure.

Mendy Heaps' concern about the food being served at school became urgent. "I started feeling guilty that I had never really done anything to change what was going on, even though I knew it was wrong." Heaps said she could not understand why the school condoned students eating so much "junk" food. "Why do we serve or sell ANYTHING that isn't good for the kids?" she said. "I hate the food they serve, but I hate even worse that they sell so much JUNK along with the bad food they serve."

According to Heaps, food services director Susan Stevens and other school officials respond that students are entitled to "treats," and should be free to choose their own food. "They feel like my ideas are too radical and you should not 'restrict' kids," Heaps said.

Stevens did not respond to requests for comment. In an e-mail she sent to Heaps on April 28, 2009, she said, "My job is to provide each student with a healthy meal that adheres exactly to CDE [Colorado Department of Education] mandated nutrition guidelines. Our kitchens and staff are regularly audited to prove that we follow these guidelines and that we are all in compliance with state safety and health regulations."

Ron Patera, who oversees food services as the school system's finance director, said in a statement, "Ms. Heaps and I are both in support of providing nutritious and safe meals to Elizabeth's students so they have every opportunity to enhance their academic peformance. Elizabeth's schools meet and exceed the Federal and State laws governing the National School Lunch Program."

Federal nutrition guidelines currently do not cover foods sold outside the subsidized food line. Legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate would, for the first time, give the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to regulate all foods available in public schools. That measure reflects growing sentiment that schools need to address a nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity and stop selling nutritionally inferior food to students.

Heaps said one of her students was unable to use a standard-size desk in class because she was so heavy and had to be outfitted with a special table instead. That student habitually ate choco-tacos for lunch from the "grab and go"--two or three of them, according to Heaps--"and washed them down with a big Gatorade."

Klondike brand choco-taco is an ice cream dessert folded inside a cookie and dipped in chocolate. A single choco-taco contains 290 calories (40 calories more than a McDonald's cheesburger), 11 grams of saturated fat (four grams more than a BallPark beef hotdog) and 24 grams of sugar, (slightly less than a one-cup serving of Coca-Cola). "Of course the kids loved them and I'm sure the cafeteria made a boat load of money selling them," Heaps said. "They were meant for dessert, but what middle school kids do--when they have money and there is a 'concession stand' open at lunch--is they buy only 'dessert' and eat it for lunch. Duh--they're kids." Heaps said the school no longer offers choco-tacos.

Heaps said she was told that sales from foods such as nachos and ice cream were needed to support the lunch program. But student behavior after meals was so disruptive, classes following lunch were rotated so that no single teacher would be forced to bear the brunt of it every day. "They were hyper and crazy...and then they crashed," Heaps said.

At one point, Heaps began teaching nutrition with seventh-grade science teachers but found she could not reconcile what they were telling the children in class with what the children were being served in the cafeteria. In an e-mail she sent to the entire school staff, Heaps wrote: "When I started teaching nutrition a la language arts/science, I realized everything I was teaching did not go along with what is happening at our school when it comes to eating healthy. Do I simply tell the kids we need the money more than they need their future health? Or should I tell them that maybe only 'some' of them will get diabetes or cancer or have heart attacks--so go ahead and play the odds!"

Finally, Heaps took matters into her own hands and started selling what she considered healthier foods from her "fruit cart."

"I used the cart that my overhead projector sat on," Heaps explained. "Once I started selling fruit in my classroom and the kids knew, they kept coming to my room to buy it...I decided to take the fruit to them. I got some kids to help. We piled the fruit on the cart (we also had cheese sticks, granola bars, peanuts) and the kids pushed it around from room to room."

Heaps said the parents of one of her students were local produce distributors and started delivering fresh fruit to her on Wednesdays. "My sister gave me a small refrigerator for my classroom so I could keep things cold. The fruit they delivered was awesome. They let me buy it at a discount so I was getting strawberries, blueberries, pears, all different kinds of apples. It was great."

But Heaps made a mistake one day, taking the cart into the cafeteria during lunch. Federal rules forbid competing food being sold alongside the subsidized meal. "I had taken the Fruit Cart in the cafeteria because the kids wanted to have some fruit for lunch and the cafeteria either wasn't selling any, or the fruit I had was so much better, the kids wanted it instead." Then she sent an e-mail to the school staff--except the principal and assistant principal--in which she referred to the kichen workers as "evil lunch ladies." Heaps said she meant it as a joke, but the gaffe was her undoing.

In a personnel memo dated May 1, 2009, principal Robert Mcmullen wrote, in part, "Your continued campaign has caused dusruption to the normal operatons of the district Food Serivce Director, district Finance Director, myself, your colleagues and the school...Therefore, I am issuing the following directive:

"You will support and treat all school and district personnel and departments with respect.

"You will include Mr. Westfall [assistant principal] and myself on all mass emails from or to school accounts.

"You will cease the fruit cart sales after the end of the school year.

"You will spend at least 15 minutes each day on lunch duty for the remainder of the 2009 school year. This will give you an opportunity to observe what our students are truly eating at lunch.

"You will bring me hard numbers regarding the percentages of EMS [Elizabeth Middle School] students who do eat hot lunches each day. These numbers will include both the full lunch as well as the pizza, Chick-Fil-A, Subway, etc. served in the hot line.

"You will meet with Susan Stevens, before the end of this school year, to better understand the realities of the economics of Elizabeth Food Services. Let me know when that meeting will take place and report to me your findings.

"You will bring to me the data showing the economic costs of eliminating the 'Grab and Go' line as you have proposed.

"You were hired to teach Language Arts. You will ensure that all your units, lessons and materials focus on the Language Arts standards and benchmarks."

Heaps says she no longer teaches nutrition in her classes. But she does talk to her students about her husband and "how much our life changed when he got sick."

"When I got the memo, everyone became afraid," said Heaps. "If I tried to talk about the memo, no one wanted to listen. I got a little support from a couple of teachers, but not very much. Everyone wanted to forget about it and they wanted me to forget about it too...The only thing I still do is write letters and try to get someone interested! I'm working on one for Michelle Obama right now."

Editorial Notes: What lessons are the principal, school district and union teaching the students? Words about integrity mean little, when they are contradicted by actions. Of course, many schools are as bad as the one mentioned in the article. But the story here is emblematic of our abrogation of responsibility toward the health of our young people. Discussion and comments at the original article at Grist. -BA

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