Taking School Food Reform to the Next Level (and a trip to the White House!)


Sam and JoAnne Hammermaster at The White House

My son and I recently had an amazing opportunity: we were asked to speak at the White House with First Lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about school food reform and changes we have seen over the last four years since the Let’s Move initiative was launched.

The White House? Us? My son and I said okay, then reality hit. We thought it would be in front of a few people, but then found out it would be over 150 people plus the media! That is a lot for a 14 year old – let alone me. My son, Sam, has given presentations at school, certainly, but nothing like this! Then, on top of that, he found out he was going to introduce the First Lady! He was nervous but excited. As he put it, what 14 year old gets to do that? It was a fun and unique opportunity for him, so he agreed to join me. He loved every minute of it.

It was incredible to meet the First Lady. My family was ushered into the Blue Room at the White House. We had the opportunity to meet Secretary Vilsack and Sam Kass, the executive director of Let’s Move and the White House chef. It was a great opportunity for me, as I have looked to both of them to educate myself in this field. Then the First Lady came in. As my son put it, she was really friendly as soon as she walked in the door. She gave us a warm smile and made us feel at ease (well, as much at ease as you can be in front of the First Lady!). When the audience was ready and my husband and daughter were escorted to their seats, we had to get ready to present. I was trying to start focusing on my message, but then the First Lady came over just to chat with Sam and me! It was incredible just to speak with her. She asked Sam about school, our dogs, and other casual things. Then it was time to speak.

How did I get here? I have worked for nearly four years on improving the school food program in Fairfax County, VA. But it is not just me. I am the President of my local PTA and am blessed with a great group of parents who are really committed to making positive change in our area. There are so many complicated pieces to this puzzle, and it will take everyone working together to make it happen.

For students like my son, it is harder for them to see the changes right away. But now Sam sees that things are starting to change. He has heard me speak many times about why eating well is so important for school and his well being. He is really into soccer. He talks about the how he learned the hard way on the field when he had pizza and ice cream the night before a big game. He knows that his endurance and performance on the field are directly affected by how he fuels his body. And he is so good about eating a solid breakfast every day before school. Now if I could just get my 16 year old daughter to do it consistently, too!

My advocacy has taken me to many schools, school board meetings, and parent interactions, to name a few. I am fortunate to have the opportunity as a PTA president to meet a lot of people, get feedback from parents, and work with school administrators. I have been heavily involved in the PTA since my children were little. It has kept me connected to the pulse of my children’s schools. And it has enabled me to continue my school food reform work. I worked with a few parents to form an advocacy group called Real Food For Kids, which focuses on improving school food and educating students on making healthy choices.

When I speak to people about school food reform, there is one point that I consistently make: collaboration. This won’t happen with one person. It has to work for all parties involved. I was asked a year or two ago why I was still being PTA president when my hands were so full with my advocacy for school food reform. I said it was key that I stay involved in the PTA. It is a great way to stay connected. As a parent, it is very important for me to get a “pulse” of my kids’ schools, to meet more parents, and to understand issues in our county. The PTA is great resource.

It was such an honor to meet the First Lady and speak at the White House about helping children to have a healthier future. We have lofty goals in front of us, but  we look to the road ahead with optimism and determination. Together, with support from the PTA, I believe that change will come.

Sam Hammermaster is 14 years old and attends middle school in Vienna, VA. He is an avid soccer player, and is interested in computer programming and animation. He loves camping, hiking, and being outside. 

JoAnne Hammermaster is co-founder and Executive Director of Real Food For Kids, a group that strives to improve the quality of school food in FCPS. JoAnne is currently PTA President at Kilmer Middle School and a member of the FCFT Sustainability Committee. She is former PTA President at Wolftrap Elementary, where she also started a Nutrition & Health Committee, co-founded the Wolftrap Running Club, headed up the 5k, and worked in various other committees. She was previously on the PTA Executive Committee for several years at a Florida school. She has held various leadership positions at her church, including starting a ministry that works with domestic abuse victims.


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