"Renegade Lunch Lady" in Newport Beach

"Renegade Lunch Lady" in Newport Beach
bookgrl @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Have you looked at a school menu lately?

Go for it. Go look on SchoolMenu.com and look for your local school's menu.

While the food has improved somewhat since we were kids (Mexican Straw Hats, anyone?), it's still pretty grim. Ketchup is still a vegetable. Fruit and vegetables are nearly always canned, fried and processed foods abound, and with a few rare exceptions, it's all trucked in from giant food distribution warehouses who source their food from anywhere and everywhere. It's one thing in the middle of winter in Kansas, when nothing grows except hothouse produce, but the problem is thrown into sharp relief when, with trees all over southern California groaning with citrus, the menu at school reads "canned mandarin oranges".

Chef Ann Cooper wants to change the way our kids eat. She wants more locally-produced food in the schools; she wants fresh fruits and vegetables, healthier grains, more food made from whole ingredients. At a national average of 90 cents per meal, this is hard to do: she suggests increasing that to $1.90 per meal and lays out what that would purchase.

As much as I respect her, and as little as a dollar may seem to people who lay out four dollars for a pint of milk with a shot of coffee in it, I live in Anaheim, which has more need and less ability to pay for healthy lunches than most places in OC, and an extra $20 a month is simply not in a lot of folks' budget. I'd love to see a tax break--a meaningful one, one that will actually motivate people--to food producers who donate fresh produce, healthy grains and sustainably-raised meat to schools. In my fevered mind, I imagine a Second Harvest-type clearinghouse for unsold (or even deliberately overstocked) farmers' market produce.

Chef Cooper will be giving a free talk on Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 9 a.m. at the Environmental Nature Center, 1601 E. 16th St., Newport Beach. The talk is sponsored by the center and also by Slow Food Orange County. Stop by and see exactly what she would do with the extra money, and if you think you've got better ideas, express them. The route we take to get better food to our kids is less important than actually getting there.


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