ANN COOPER has made a career out of hammering on the poor quality of public school food. The School Nutrition Association, with 55,000 members, represents the people who prepare it.
A meal from the cafeteria at P.S. 89 in Manhattan does not contain processed food.
Imagine Ms. Cooper’s surprise when she was invited to the association’s upcoming conference to discuss the Lunch Box, a system she developed to help school districts wean themselves from packaged, heavily processed food and begin cooking mostly local food from scratch.
“All of a sudden I am not the fringe idiot trying to get everyone to serve peas and carrots that don’t come out of a can, like that’s the most radical idea they have ever heard of,” she said.
The invitation is a small sign of larger changes happening in public school cafeterias. For the first time since a new wave of school food reform efforts began a decade ago, once-warring camps are sharing strategies to improve what kids eat. The Department of Agriculture is welcoming ideas from community groups and more money than ever is about to flow into school cafeterias, from Washington and from private providers.
“The window’s open,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture. “We are in the zone when a whole lot of exciting ideas are being put on the table. I have been working in the field of sustainable agriculture and nutrition all my professional life, and I really have never seen such opportunity before.”