Passion. That’s a word you hear all the time when talking about school nutrition operators. That dedication was exactly what drew one media professional away from the white tablecloths of fine dining to America’s largest feeding operation.
After a career that included a stint at the Wine Spectator, Laura Stanley, producer and host of “Inside School Food,” took a fortuitous path that led her to the school food community and a new gig running a weekly radio show dedicated to the professionals working to feed children healthy school meals. The show runs weekly, with topics ranging from controlling waste to sustainable chicken purchasing and USDA rules and regulations.
Food Management recently talked with Stanley about her transition into radio and her work with the school food professionals she calls “heroes.”
FM: What’s your career background?
LS: When I was home with my child I went to cooking school. When I was back to work full time, I went to food media and was a features editor at the Wine Spectator and senior editor at Martha Stewart. I had this food media background. I became really interested in supply chain issues and the business of foodservice and started gravitating toward the topics of how do you buy sustainable.
When I was trying to make the transition out of magazines and into what my [future boss at School Food FOCUS] called food system “change work,” out of the blue I got a call from New York City College of Technology, which was being hired by the New York City Department of Health to run a Trans Fat Help Center to help the city's foodservice industry navigate the new ban on trans fat. I said, “I don’t know anything about that side of the food system; I write about fancy, white tablecloth chefs who buy farm to table.” And they said, “That’s what we want. We want someone who can talk to chefs.” So I took this job. It completely turned my career around. I became this food system project person.
FM: How did you start working with school foodservice?
LS: When I finished that two-year gig, School Food FOCUS (a national collaborative that leverages the knowledge and procurement power of large school districts to make school meals nationwide more healthful, regionally sourced, and sustainably produced) offered me a consultancy, which worked into a job. Initially what they wanted me to do was run a change project for K-12 chicken, for districts interested in cleaner label options and safe, sustainable antibiotic use.
Working with school foodservice professionals was a complete turn on. I finally realized who the real food system heroes are. These people in the trenches feeding the kids with all these issues and regulations, no budget, no glamor were out there so committed. I met them working at Focus and I knew this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my career.
FM: How did you get into radio?
LS: I missed the media terribly. But with so many magazines cutting back or folding, I couldn’t see going back into print. I had always loved radio so I thought I’d give it a crack. I’ve been doing it only for a year and a half. Podcasting is exploding right now, so I thought, “Why not do a radio show to the trade.”
I called up Heritage and said, “I have this idea.” They were willing to pilot it. It’s a good home for the show because their emphasis is the good food movement. Inside School Food is a production of the listener-supported Heritage Radio Network, a unique Internet station committed to archiving, protecting and advancing our country’s rich food culture through programs that give voice to America’s leading food professionals, farmers, policy experts, artists and tastemakers.
Most school food professionals are on the go and don’t have jobs that allow them to sit at a desk for hours at a time. What really moved me was they are so motivated to take their limited, precious spare time and devote it to learning from one another. I was thinking when coming up with this show, is there some way I can bring them this every week. You can upload it to your phone and listen to it on your commute to and from work. I’m trying to recreate the feeling you get when you go to an SNA conference or farm to school summit, like you’re hanging out with your peers.
What's coming up
FM: There are a lot of opinions right now about school foodservice. Do you take sides on topics like waivers?
LS: We are in these divisive conversations that are going on in school foodservice right now like waivers and sodium targets. “Inside School Food” does not take sides. We’re looking for leaders and innovators who can really help us open new pathways to constructive conversation. All points of view are welcome, as long as the guest has a commitment to child welfare.
FM: How do you prep for the show?
LS: I spend a lot of time with my guests before they come on the air. We spend a whole hour in what I call a pre-interview and I draw from that a topic and focus. There’s a lot of work on the backend because I want them to feel comfortable and supported when they go on the air. It is live most of the time. Some people get nervous, and I don’t want them to be nervous.
FM: What’s coming up on the show?
LS: September is all back to school. In October I do a whole course of farm to school episodes, but if there’s a lot of Child Nutrition Reauthorization stuff going on I might have to change that.
FM: What guest would you love to have on the show that you haven’t yet?
LS: I would love to have Michelle Obama on the show.
Editor’s note: Every month Laura Stanley is sharing five learnings from that month’s shows. Her first column can be found here. Is there a topic or question you’d like Laura to address on her show? Let us know in the comments below.