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Bettina Elias Siegel: lunch warrior

Bettina Elias Siegel ’87 keeps an eye on what schools feed our kids.

Marie D. De Jesús

Marie D. De Jesús

After joining an advisory committee on food in her children’s schools, Bettina Elias Siegel ’87 became an authority on what goes into our kids. View full image

Marie D. De Jesús

Marie D. De Jesús

View full image

Bettina Elias Siegel ’87 has gone head-to-head with McDonald’s and emerged victorious. She’s written about school-lunch issues for the New York Times, and she’s rallied parents around the country to speak out on behalf of their children’s health.

But in 2010, when she started the blog that started it all—The Lunch Tray—she would never have called herself an activist. “Back then I was much more shy and not so comfortable with my own voice and just would not want that role,” she says. “It would sound antagonistic and adversarial.”

She thought she had left the adversarial life behind when she ended her career as a corporate lawyer, shortly after her first child was born. But after she and her husband moved to Houston, she volunteered to sit on a parental advisory committee focused on school food for her local school district. That was the impetus for the blog. “There were so many things at that very first meeting that were really eye-opening to me, and intriguing—not necessarily in a good way,” she says. She remembers asking at the meeting why animal crackers were included in the school district’s breakfast menu every day. “The answer I got was so surprising,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Well, there’s iron in the white flour in the animal crackers, and we have to give them iron. It’s required.’”

Siegel drew on her legal background to begin researching school lunch, and started The Lunch Tray as a way to share what she was learning with other parents. “I was a parent of two growing kids, and once you’re a parent—when you’re in charge of feeding someone—you start to see the world differently: the junk food advertising that they’re being bombarded with, and why is the teacher handing them candy all the time?” she says. “I just wanted to talk about all of this.”  

And people were listening. In 2012, Siegel launched her first Change.org petition, against the use of lean, finely textured beef, better known as “pink slime,” in school food; it drew nearly 260,000 signatures and helped push the USDA to let schools serve beef without the additive. (Critics argued that concerns about the product were overblown.) Siegel followed that petition with two others, also successful: schools could not start serving chicken that was processed in China, and McDonald’s stopped promoting a film about its food to schools as a nutrition-education resource.

Siegel’s first book, about how society’s food system and culture affects kids, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019. She  concedes that she’s become more comfortable stirring the pot—as long as it’s for a good cause. “As a lawyer, I didn’t like being an advocate for a client; that was uncomfortable for me,” she says. “But I’m very comfortable being an advocate for things I inherently believe in.”

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