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Natural products, and the future of the school lunchNatural products, and the future of the school lunch

Emery Cowan

July 17, 2014

3 Min Read
Natural products, and the future of the school lunch

Besides Michelle Obama, there may be no other more appropriate poster child for healthy school lunches than Chef Ann Cooper. The always-passionate, fast-talking director of nutrition services at Boulder Valley School District and founder of Food Family Farming Foundation has dedicated herself to getting more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains onto lunch trays nationwide.
She’s been appealing mainly to parents, educators and legislators to join her cause, but the natural products industry has skin in this game as well, she says.
“If we allow this generation to grow up thinking junk food is real food, then there will be no natural products industry,” said Cooper.
Quite simply, today’s school children are the future consumer base of the natural products industry. Exposing students to healthier foods now is imperative to creating adults who appreciate real, nutritious foods in the future.
And school lunch programs, as the educational arm of food in schools, are the logical starting point for this work, Cooper says.
The trend of school gardens and farm-to-table movements in schools make for feel-good headlines, but the reality is that there continues to be a dearth of natural products in schools, Cooper said. The average school cafeteria is still an ode to Big Food. At the latest School Nutrition Conference, Pizza Hut, Sara Lee and PepsiCo dominated the show floor, crowding out less flashy but much more wholesome offerings like lentils, chickpeas and hummus, reports Mother Jones.
While getting their products into schools could potentially be a new frontier for natural products companies, and a boon to the health of America’s children, the obstacles are many, including a maze of ever-changing nutritional guidelines, almost inconceivably slim budgets and a complicated proposal process, says Phil Anson.  
Anson, the founder of frozen burrito maker EVOL, has worked with Cooper since 2012 to get healthy breakfast burritos into Boulder Valleys School District’s schools. But even now the venture continues to lose money. The partnership is a philanthropic project, but not much more, Anson said.   
“Some folks  have made it work with staples like organic milk and as we scale it may get easier.” he said.“But there are pennies to be made.”
Greek yogurt maker Chobani provides one example of what kind of scale Anson is talking about.  The company made headlines earlier this year when the USDA awarded it a one-year contract to supply school lunch programs in 12 states scattered across the country. The Greek yogurt company, which opened one of the world’s largest yogurt-processing plants in Idaho two years ago, offered the federal government a flat rate of $1.40 per pound of yogurt. During last year’s three-month pilot program alone, Chobani supplied 200,000 pounds of yogurt to schools.
The company’s success story may be a start, but Anson says that for real change and for the natural products industry to have a chance at getting a foot in the door with schools, the whole system needs to be scrapped.
“In the end, it needs to be stripped down to the studs and rebuilt. The value chain in food is massively corrupted,” he said. “It’s impossible to feed the world EVOL burritos, Justin’s (peanut butter), KIND bars and Stonyfield yogurt for the dollars that are being given by the USDA.”
Cooper agrees that the system has a lot of downfalls. But for now, she’s focused on not letting current standards slip. Her most recent advocacy efforts have focused on speaking out against efforts by legislators in the House of Representatives to allow some public schools temporary exemptions from healthy eating standards established by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“Allowing schools to not serve fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains in a sense is taking the healthy food away from kids,” Cooper says. “Because then what are you left with?”

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