Story by Carolyn Federman

April Hamilton is a parent to three kids in the Kanawha County School public system in Charleston, West Virginia. Over many years, she has worked with her local school to develop cooking and wellness programs and slowly expanded her work to include influencing school lunch.

Several years back, April Hamilton approached the Principal of the Elementary school that her children attended, and asked how she could get involved. At the time, the school was offering an alternate meal option (i.e. a vegetarian meal) as part of the school lunch program, and the principal indicated she was open to having April work with the lunch staff to try to improve that option. But when she met with the Nutrition Services Coordinator (NSC) for the district to follow up, April was discouraged. The NSC was concerned the proposed menu might not meet Federal nutrition guidelines, and worried that students might not like the new food – so April’s suggestions were not implemented.

In the meantime, April started several programs at the school to help build awareness of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. She started a 5-a-day program, a bread-baking ritual for the kindergarteners, and other cooking projects that involved and educated kids about food.

Then in 2009, she heard that Jamie Oliver would be in Huntington, the next county over and was determined to support the Food Revolution. April and fellow parent-activist Carol Damewood Spann met Sustainable Food Systems, Inc – the consultants who helped changed school food in Cabell County – and invited them to visit with parents and administrators from Kanawha County Schools, a district that is 3 times the size of Cabell County.

Sustainable Food Systems visited with representatives from the district and made a public presentation about why it is so important to change school food. They were met with enthusiastic support from parents and the wider community. They offered to come back to Charleston to do a district-wide assessment of facilities, staffing, and the district’s readiness for change overall. April and Carol immediately set about raising funds to support this first step to improving Charleston’s school food.

They first drafted a petition and asked parents, students, administrators and community members to sign on. They easily collected over 200 signatures from across the community.

Community support in hand, they then drafted a fundraising letter, asking community members to take the next step, and help bring Sustainable Food Systems back for the countywide assessment. They named their campaign “Launching a New Lunch”, and in just a few short weeks, they had raised the $12,000 needed to do this. In-kind support, such as graphic design for their new letterhead, also helped bolster the campaign.

Early supporters included local pediatricians, pediatric dentists and orthodontists, law firms, and local insurance agents, all of whom understand the high cost of feeding our children processed food.

When the consultants made their presentation, they were met with both enthusiasm and some trepidation by the administration. The projected cost for the entire program was estimated at approximately $18 per child, to change the system and provide the training and equipment necessary to transform the way the district feeds its students. For a district of nearly 27, 000 children, this small amount can add up fast. But the parents in Charleston know that without these changes, the costs – in terms of real healthcare dollars – are much greater.

In order to keep pressure on the school board and a focus on improving the district’s food, April and Carol plan to expand the support base of “Launching a New Lunch” and continue educating their community on the value of fresh, whole foods.

April and Carol’s next steps are to:

“¢ Approach the changes in phases: Phase 1 will be a pilot program in 7 schools across the county. Work will include training for nutrition services staff and rolling out new menus for those schools in 2011.

“¢ Broaden community support for change: Start a facebook page to gather support and keep people posted on progress.

“¢ Provide a feedback loop for supporters: Get feedback from Principals on the presentation from Sustainable Food Systems, and feed that back to the Superintendent.

“¢ Keep applying pressure: To the Superintendent and school board through letters and media coverage.

John Turenne, founder of Sustainable Food Systems, Inc. and manager of Jamie’s project in Huntington, WV visited Kanawha County this month and reported that “it was truly an inspiration to witness the success an organized group of parents and community stakeholders can have when it comes to motivating a school board, superintendent and food service to consider change.”

April’s story is a great example of how one person can galvanize change throughout an entire community. While she still has a lot of work to do to see dramatic change in school lunch, April and Carol have already got the attention of the entire district, raised awareness among the community, convinced other parents to help and raised significant funds to do better for the kids of Charleston West Virginia.

About the author: Carolyn Federman is a program and development consultant to Alice Waters and The Jamie Oliver Foundation. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her two school-age children.