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Whole Foods, Ann Cooper hope to reform school cafeterias

August 13, 2009 | 11:55 am

Lunchtest

Whole Foods is partnering with Ann Cooper, who helped reform the school food program in Berkeley, to help other schools improve what they serve to the 30 million children who eat school lunches in the U.S.

By launching the project just before millions of children return to school, Whole Foods hopes to capture the attention of families -- as well as of Congress, which is slated to consider school food and other nutrition programs when it works on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act.

"The time is right to say, 'Hey, there is something you can do ... right here and right now," Walter Robb, co-president of Whole Foods Market, said in a telephone interview.

Robb says that food should be part of the health reform conversation, not just obesity and its related diseases, such as diabetes.

"This is the social justice issue of our time, and schools have no money to help solve the problem," Cooper says in a statement.

But while school district officials often say they are hampered by funding restrictions and regulations about the foods they offer, Robb says, "It's true and it's also not good enough in some ways."

A website, thelunchbox.org, will include recipes for schools, reference information about food safety and how to get healthy food, information for parents, and community activism information. It should be available at the end of the week, a Whole Foods spokeswoman says.

In a recent Wall Street Journal story, Whole Foods' chief executive, John Mackey, talked about a renewed focus on healthy food in the stores -- moving it away from its image as a destination for high-end treats. 

Robb called the school lunch project "the next step in part of a renewed focus in supporting healthy eating in the world." He and Cooper are going to Washington to try to persuade lawmakers to improve the federal school breakfast and lunch programs in the Child Nutrition Act.

Cooper, nicknamed the "Renegade Lunch Lady," has worked to reform the school meals program in Berkeley, and now is working in schools in Boulder, Colo. She is the author of "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children."

Robb says Whole Foods, which is based in Austin, Texas, "is dropping out of the arms race" of supermarkets and returning to its roots. The company also is developing a slate of healthy cooking classes for its stores and focusing on affordable items.

F3: Food Family Farming Foundation, founded by Cooper, is developing the website, including recipe development and testing, with donations from Whole Foods ($50,000 in 2009) and from shoppers at checkouts.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Students try new dishes from L.A. Unified's executive chef, Mark Baida, last year at San Pedro High. Credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

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