Earlier this week, though they didn’t know it, the school kids in this country lost an ardent champion. And I lost a mentor and one of my dearest friends.
I “met” Dana Woldow almost seven years ago, just three months after starting The Lunch Tray. I had stumbled across a story about her on CNN which described her efforts to improve the meals in San Francisco USD, the district in which her three sons had gone to school.
I could sense from that interview that Dana was a sharply intelligent and passionate advocate, and someone who was more than willing to speak truth to power. (If you have a second, scroll down toward the end of the article and read her criticism of Michelle Obama’s feel-good “Chefs Move to Schools” program, which – until Dana’s comments – had received nothing but glowing praise.)
After reading that piece, I did something quite uncharacteristic of me, at least back then when I was pretty shy about these things. I somehow found her contact information on the Internet and arranged a call so I could ask her how I could improve the school food in my own district.
From the second Dana picked up the phone and – in a rather clipped tone, it must be said – corrected my mispronunciation of her name (she didn’t use the long “a” in “Dana”), I knew I was in the presence of someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly. I immediately sat up straighter in my chair and did my utmost to impress her with my then-meager knowledge about school food, trying to show her I was a serious person who was worthy of her time and considerable expertise.
I must have passed the test, because that call marked the beginning of what would become one of the most important friendships of my life.
Soon Dana and I were in weekly – sometimes multiple-times-daily – email contact. At first, we were relatively formal with each other, as two strangers would be, but over time our correspondence became more relaxed and intimate. I quickly realized that in addition to – or perhaps because of – having such a powerful intellect, Dana was one of the funniest people I’d ever met. Her sense of humor was absolutely wicked, and reading her emails became a highlight of my working day.
But Dana offered me more than friendship. She also taught me how to be a better advocate, and I believe that whatever successes I’ve achieved through my activism were the product of her tutelage.
First and foremost, Dana helped me grow a thicker skin. I’m a people-pleaser by nature, but she made me accept the hard truth that any kind of activism will bring out enemies, because someone is always going to be on the losing side of reform. When I sometimes found myself in the middle of a media fire storm, she was always there to help me keep my head up, my shoulders back, and my eye on what truly mattered – the welfare of kids in need.
Dana also taught me to think more critically in my work. For example, Dana used to deride what she called “school food miracles” – i.e., those glowing media accounts we all read from time to time of schools offering truly fabulous meals, the kind of stories that make you wonder why the idiots in your own district aren’t serving organic blueberries and wild salmon instead of nuggets and canned peaches.
It wasn’t that Dana didn’t want every kid in America to get the best school food possible; that was the precisely the goal that animated everything she did. It was that she knew such “miracles” can’t occur without extra resources unavailable to the vast majority of districts, whether in the form of an outside grant, or volunteer parent labor, or someone passing the hat around the community, or all of the above. (See this guest post Dana wrote for me in 2o11, which is a perfect primer on the subject.)
In that respect, though I’m not sure the School Nutrition Association (a longtime foe of Dana’s) ever recognized it, Dana was a great ally of school food professionals. She hated the idea that dedicated cafeteria workers around the country were being implicitly maligned by media stories about “miracle schools,” because those stories almost never disclosed the hidden advantages that made those fabulous meal programs possible.
I’ve worked with top-notch litigators who couldn’t hold a candle to Dana’s analytical abilities. She could pick up a lengthy, data-dense study on almost any topic and within minutes break it down in a hundred different ways, clearly showing you its methodological flaws or all the ways in which its proponents were overstating its findings. More than once I told her she would have been a phenomenal lawyer, but she always laughed off that comment, telling me the world had enough lawyers.
Instead, Dana was perfectly content to apply her vast talents – entirely unpaid – to improving the lives of kids who likely will never know about her advocacy on their behalf. And when she wasn’t helping kids, she was bringing along other advocates like me, generously sharing whatever knowledge she had to offer, providing all of us with the benefit of her decades-long experience.
As some of you know, last week I had a story in the New York Times about “lunch shaming” that went viral – it was one of the most tweeted stories of the weekend and has since spread like wildfire in the news media. Normally that kind of reaction would make a writer rejoice, but every time I saw another high-profile celebrity or commentator share the story, my eyes would well up with tears.
No one in this world hated the idea of giving debt-ridden kids an “alternate meal” more than Dana, a practice she always called the “meal of shame.” She wrote passionately and often about reducing stigma in the cafeteria, and she had been instrumental in getting San Francisco’s Board of Education to adopt a groundbreaking no-shaming policy back in 2009. In fact, I had known nothing at all about “lunch shaming” until Dana herself made me aware of it several years ago.
But by the time the Times story came out last Friday, my seven years of email correspondence with Dana had already come to an end. I knew she was in serious decline, and I hesitated to intrude on her family at such a difficult time. But I also knew that if there was one thing I could do to bring Dana joy at the end of her life, it was to let her know that somehow, overnight, the entire country was up in arms about the “meal of shame.” Even more astonishing, this outcry was taking place just as schools are being required by the USDA to come up with written policies about dealing with meal debt. The timing couldn’t be better for real progress on an issue about which she cared so deeply.
So I sent an email to Dana’s husband about this incredible development, and I asked him if he would be kind enough to read it aloud to her. He wrote back and said he did so. I’ll never know for sure, but I want to believe she was able to absorb the news.
A mutual friend who told me of Dana’s death ended her email with these words, which are a perfect summation of my own feelings:
“We’ll remember her with love and admiration for her badassery, spirit and dedication to those most in need.”
My deepest condolences to Dana’s husband, her three sons and her daughter-in-law. For those who wish to honor Dana’s memory, the family suggests a donation to Meals on Wheels or another charity of your choice.
I’ve decided my own donation in honor of Dana will go to Feed the Future Forward, a charity here in Houston that will relieve a school’s outstanding meal debt – but only if the school promises never again to serve a child the “meal of shame.”