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Sous Chef of Education

Karen Duncan: Helping schools cook.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Julia Edwards
May 23, 2012

When Karen Duncan was growing up in Australia, her lunch was a Vegemite sandwich brought from home. Today, as the wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, she’s heading an effort to spice up—and add nutrition to—the menu for American schoolchildren.

She’s had a few lessons to learn along the way.

“In Australia, schools don’t provide lunches, so the whole school-lunch concept was new to me in some respects,” Duncan said.


But when she came to the U.S. and started teaching physical education, she realized the connection between a healthy lunch and a healthy mind.

“As a teacher, I’ve seen the disconnect between what we teach our students about healthy eating and sometimes what’s on the menu in the cafeteria,” Duncan told a group of students and congressional staffers at a Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday hosted by the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Pew Health Group.

In an event on Monday night at the Education Department, Duncan judged healthy meals made by student chefs that included spinach and carrot muffins, sweet potato salad, home-style tortilla apple pie, and lemon pepper chicken.

Each dish will be available for purchase in House cafeterias on Thursday.

Duncan cochaired the contest, called “Cooking Up Change,” with Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Duncan has traveled to Detroit and Vilsack to Chicago to judge regional school cooking competitions. The winners of the national competition, from Santa Ana, Calif., prepared a meal of lemon and spinach chicken, Tuscan bean salad, and cinnamon poached pears.

The partnership with Vilsack made sense, Duncan said, because both women care about improving school meals and their husbands’ departments both deal with the issue. She applauds the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign—which she has worked with indirectly—for boosting efforts of nonprofits already in place.

Duncan said she was surprised to learn when she came to Washington that it’s the Agriculture Department—not the Education Department—that oversees school lunches. According to the Pew Health Group, the USDA started setting standards for school meals in the 1940s to make sure students were simply getting enough calories. Today, the challenge is making sure they get the right calories—foods that are low in fat and high in lean proteins, fiber, and vegetables.

Duncan advocates for funding to help schools meet that challenge. On Tuesday, she stood with other nutrition advocates, including Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools Director of Nutrition Services Marla Caplon, who brought salad bars into school cafeterias and is working to replace all deep fryers with food steamers.

Both Duncan and her husband realize budgets are tight, but she is encouraged that schools like the ones involved in the contest are coming up with creative ways to make nutritious meals cost-effective.

“I love that with Cooking Up Change, we’re looking to the students themselves for inspiration and solutions to the challenges that schools face in serving fresh, nutritious meals that support students’ readiness to learn in the classroom,” Duncan said.  

Duncan is also the mother of two children, both of whom helped judge the food cooked by the student chefs. She said they were tough judges, but that their favorite item was the spinach and carrot muffin.

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