After giving birth to her daughter four years ago, Kingston resident Ann Marie Woolsey-Johnson was between jobs and searching for something to do. As a lifelong healthy eater — “I was raised by health enthusiasts who did not allow me to eat hot dogs until I was an adolescent” — she became disenchanted with the baby food on the market and decided to make her own stuff, “although I just didn’t have the time to do this for every meal.”
Describing herself as “a chronic forward-thinker,” Woolsey-Johnson decided that “when she goes to school, I’ll make her lunch.”
She started researching the hot-button topic of school lunches. Woolsey-Johnson was dismayed by her findings, and a friend mentioned that starting a healthy-lunch delivery service “might be a great idea.” She started Hudson Valley Clean Lunch, which covered Ulster and Dutchess counties, but soon realized she was “biting off way more than I could chew.” So she scaled back her geographical area to Kingston only. Now her Kingston Clean Lunch Company has rented a commercial kitchen and put up a website for online orders.
“People are disenchanted by what’s available at the schools,” she said, “and I’m pushing this to people who are pressed for time and have that focus of wanting healthy food for their kids.”
Prevented by state regulations from delivering to the schools, Woolsey-Johnson will deliver the lunch to the homes of children whose parents ordered online the night before (except Sundays: since she is only renting the kitchen during the week, that means there’s no lunch offered for Monday). Orders must be placed at least five days in advance, and payment is due at time of order. She also plans to offer a pick-up destination for the lunch.
There’s a choice of three sandwiches: the Vegan Humdinger (hummus, avocado, carrots and tomatoes on sprouted wheat or whole grain wrap) for $6. 25, an Applegate Farms Turkey Avocado Wrap (with cilantro, tomatoes and Vegenaise dressing), and an Applegate Farms Organic Roast Beef (with Vegenaise and salad greens on organic peasant bread or whole grain wrap), the latter two costing $7.50.
Each sandwich comes with a piece of fruit (currently, a pear, which is in season), a raw vegetable and a side salad (currently potato salad, made with organic potatoes, cilantro, Vegenaise and red onion, from a family recipe). Cheese can be added for 50 cents more, and a R.W. Knudsen juice box is available for $1. Each lunch is packed plastic-free in a compostable cardboard box. Gluten-free lunches are also available.
“I’m focusing on fresh and local as much as possible,” said Woolsey-Johnson, who grew up in New Paltz; for example, she sources some of her bread from Bread Alone. In season, “I’d love to work with the YMCA farm and South Pine Street Farm,” she said, referring to Kingston’s two urban farms, and hopes to develop a working relationship with Hudson Valley Harvest.
Woolsey-Johnson, who doesn’t charge for delivery, said she’s attempting to keep her prices affordable. She also includes a piece of fruit, which this time of year consists of a pear. “If they want some dessert, they can order another juice box,” she said.
She plans to donate approximately 10 percent of the cost of each lunch toward a local food pantry, after-school lunch program, or children’s camp or summer meal program, such as that under development by the YMCA. “Any type of collaboration that enables me to effect change is ideal,” she said. With nearly half of Kingston public school students qualifying for reduced lunch, Woolsey-Johnson said she would love to help with that program, but because it’s a federally and state-funded program, “it gets a bit dicey.”
Woolsey-Johnson just finished a course through Cornell University and now holds a certification in plant-based nutrition. “In terms of the physiology of the body, if you’re eating fresh whole foods every day your body rids itself of toxins,” she said. For the best nutrition, “the shift also needs to be to more plant-based foods. So much evidence points toward whole foods and plant-based foods as a lifesaver. Any kind of animal protein is absolutely carcinogenic. The way the human body processes meat it not ideal.”
With nearly a quarter of Kingston’s school kids officially classified as obese, improving the nutrition of school lunches has long been a local (and national, for that matter) concern. While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to reduce the amount of salt in school lunches and offer more whole grains and veggies under its revised nutrition guidelines, French fries continue to qualify as a vegetable under the USDA’s national lunch program (thanks to lobbying by the potato industry), which provides reduced-price lunch and breakfast to low-income kids.
Cost is a major concern: Mostly subsidized by the federal government, the Kingston school district is required to bid on its food suppliers and select the lowest bid. That means a lot of the vegetables are canned or frozen (because fresh costs more, both to buy and prepare). Approximately 15 percent of the district’s food is supplied from government surpluses, which includes processed chicken meat (as opposed to muscle meat), scrambled eggs made from a liquid product, and pre-made burgers.
Woolsey-Johnson thinks the USDA nutritional standards for school lunches are really antiquated. She read an opinion piece in The New York Times about a month ago that said the federal government provides $3 per children per lunch, with a little more money contributed by the state. The cost for electricity, maintenance, and sanitation comes out of that amount, which doesn’t leave much for food.
If many children choose the potato chips over the apple at the school lunch counter, that’s partly attributable to the fact that “the food industry spends $2 billion a year advertising and targeting junk food to kids.”
Ready to go, Woolsey-Johnson is still awaiting her first order. There’s been some interest from parents at the Woodstock Day School. “As long as the destination isn’t too far from Kingston, I’d be interested,” she said. “I’ve been advertising on Facebook and getting a lot of support and feedback from people.”
For more information and to order, visit www.kingstoncleanlunchcompany.com.