Little Local Lunches
School lunches have a bad reputation. And, generally speaking, they deserve it, considering that congress just two weeks ago refused to approve new rules proposed by the Agriculture Department that would have added more fresh fruits and vegetables to American kids’ plates every day, while cutting down on the overwhelming prevalence of pizza. Evidently swayed by the opinions of companies like ConAgra, who argued that healthier meals would cost too much– and that kids wouldn’t eat them anyway– congress chose instead to ignore the nation’s childhood obesity problem, as well as common sense, and serve the interests of an industry rather than the kids in our public schools.
The fact is that the proposed changes would have, all told, increased the cost of each school meal by about $0.14 cents over the next five years. Another, more important, fact is that kids will eat fruits and vegetables. Just ask Naima Brown, who, inspired to help connect kids to their food and their communities (something agribusiness just can’t offer), started Little Local Lunches in September 2010. “The obesity problem in this country, and this state, is really bad,” Brown says, adding that, as for the French fry habit, “Kids don’t know any better, and neither do their parents. That was my main motivation in starting the business.” By delivering fresh, flavorful and mostly-local meals to Austin pre-schoolers just before lunch time each day, she has converted multiple picky eaters into vegetable lovers, often to the surprise of the people who know them best—their parents.
“When I first introduced the program to the parents, I had an open house and served a few different dishes. The response was good, but there were also a lot of concerns right off the bat,” Brown says. “Parents said, ‘I don’t think my kid will eat this.’” She was able to reassure them, citing her experience with her own daughter, now four. “It never bothered me to see my daughter throw her food on the floor. Some parents have a hard time with that, but it’s all about exposure with kids—it’s the repetition.” True to form, the parents that initially chose to sign on to the program (which she launched with South Austin’s Mariposa Montessori School as her first participating school) have stayed with it, and others have followed suit. “The growth has been pretty steady from the start,” Brown says. “It’s a win-win. Busy parents don’t have to worry about making lunch, and they don’t have to worry about their kids eating crappy food.”
There’s no question about that. Brown, a Houston native, attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and then worked in high-end (think U.S. Open) catering for almost ten years, creates inventive, kid-friendly dishes from organic meat, dairy, and produce sourced from local farmers. “The children love the options- which are super kid friendly as well as healthy,” says Kelsey Cockrum, a teacher in Mariposa’s Young Children’s Community (YCC). “I’ve even ordered them for myself! They’re that good.” Nichole Gant, the school’s lead YCC teacher, adds, “these lunches fuel and energize the kids for the whole day, which helps keep the classroom environment focused and calm.”
Brown purchases the vast majority of her ingredients at her local farmer’s market, talking with the farmers about what’s growing and then incorporating those foods into her menus for the month. She spends her mornings cooking in a commercial kitchen space that she found less than a month before officially opening for business (“Once you’re in it, you attract the loan, the kitchen space, the right people,” she says), and then delivers the meals just before lunch time. Although Brown quit her Austin-area catering job (she and her husband moved back to Texas in 2007) to start the business, she’d already perfected her routine. “I’d be up until midnight making my daighter’s lunch,” she laughs. “A child under the age of 18 months would go to school with a beautiful banquet… It was a passion. But I figured, she needs to eat well. That’s where you start.”
Brown wanted to introduce this passion for local, wholesome foods to the families her business serves, too. “I’m hoping to re-spark something in people, to get them excited about good food… If the local food is available, people will eat it.” Families who purchase her meals also receive free memberships to her Little Seeds Club, through which they’re introduced to a new seed, and information on home gardening, on a monthly basis. “I want to get everyone involved,” she says. “That’s how things change. Even if the parents just put the seeds in a cup for the kids—maybe that’ll spark something.”
Brown can work with any school in the city that has at least ten interested families (providing lunches for private schools is a straight-forward process, and although Brown has not yet worked with a public school. She is very much open to it if one is interested). She intends to eventually convert Little Local Lunches into a non-profit in order to ensure that her meals remain affordable, and to further the program’s involvement with the local community. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.