Nourishing Hero: Kelly Anderson

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This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on Nourish Network? Let us know who inspires you!

If you’ve been following the saga of British chef Jamie Oliver’s latest installment of ABC series “Food Revolution,” which is filming now in Los Angeles, you know the city’s school district has banned him from the schools. Whether the L.A. Unified School District has something to hide or simply isn’t interested in Oliver’s TV-ready antics is hard to say (it’s probably both). But let’s just say Oliver’s relationship with the City of Angels is off to a rocky start.

But Kelly Anderson, a mom in Glendale, Calif., shows that you don’t need a camera crew and celebrity status to make a profound difference in school food.

After working in PR and marketing for 10 years, Anderson decided to follow her passion for food and went through the culinary program at a local community college in 2008. Her daughter inspired her to focus her talents on developing young palates through her consulting business, The Lunch Bunch.

“She had just started preschool,” says Anderson. “They had an amazing commercial kitchen that had never been used to cook meals for the kids. I started testing recipes at the school for the kids, and they really liked it.”

Soon, other parents asked her to develop a healthy menu for the preschool. Anderson created healthy, kid-friendly dishes like veggie-topped pizzas, turkey tacos and baked chicken tenders breaded in crushed whole-grain Goldfish crackers. Many parents were pleasantly surprised to see their kids happily eating vegetables.

Anderson has several ways to encourage the kids to eat their veggies. Serving a variety of foods at schools uses “positive peer pressure from the other kids,” she says. “If they see a friend eating broccoli, they’ll try it, too.”

She’s also a fan of sneaking vegetables into kids’ favorite foods. “I hide a lot of my vegetables,” she admits. Anderson’s zippy marinara sauce, below, is thickened with a generous amount of carrots, celery and onion. She’ll add shredded veggies to beef sliders and mushrooms to Bolognese sauce.

She also teaches basic cooking classes to spark kids’ interest in new foods. “Once they’re familiar with what I’m making, they’ll be more likely to try it because they were a part of making it.” It’s a tactic she recommends parents try at home.

Anderson has launched The Lunch Bunch to consult on healthy menus for schools, restaurants, families and individuals. And she continues to cater lunch for her daughter’s preschool. Parents pay her $4 per day, per child. Though that’s more generous than the current USDA school lunch reimbursement rate–26 cents per full-priced meal to $2.72 per free meal–it’s still a tight budget that requires Anderson to shop strategically.

“All our eggs and milk are organic. I try to buy organic chicken whenever I can,” she says. “I also belong to a couple of different co-ops and shop the farmers’ market. The problem is, it’s still really expensive to buy organic.”

So she makes smart compromises, like using the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists to choose what to buy organic or picking up organic frozen berries, which typically are cheaper than fresh.

Anderson is a fan of Oliver’s efforts and sympathizes with his difficulties working with the L.A. school district. “The fact that they’re not even allowing Oliver to come in, tells me they’re not giving much thought to what they’re feeding the children,” she says. “Right now, we treat our school lunch program workers as if they are day laborers. They open up a can, they put it in a pot and they turn on the stove.”

Parents whose children are in private schools or smaller public school districts might have an easier time getting involved in their kids’ lunch programs, she says. And as long as her own daughter is in preschool, Anderson knows that she’s eating well. But when she moves up to kindergarten, Anderson may need to take her nutrition activism to the big-kids’ school.

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Kelly's "Sneaky" Veggie-Laden Marinara Sauce

Chef Kelly Anderson, founder of The Lunch Bunch, is a master at getting kids to eat their vegetables. One of her strategies: Sneak veggies into favorite foods. This thick marinara sauce is packed with tomatoes (of course), plus a boatload of onions, carrots, celery and fresh herbs. But once it’s pureed, even the most skeptical kid will just see–and taste–bright-flavored tomato sauce. It’s familiar enough to win over little ones, yet bold and vibrant enough to appeal to grown-up palates. Use it on pizzas, over pasta or as a soup base.

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 onion, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 (28-ounce) can organic crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 (2-1/2-ounce) bunch fresh basil, roughly chopped
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil. Add the carrots, celery and onion; cook 5-7 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds or until fragrant. Stir in the tomatoes, thyme, oregano and basil. Simmer 30 minutes until thickened to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cool to room temperature.

Puree in a blender or food processor or with an immersion blender. Refrigerate up to 1 week or freeze up to 6 months.

Yields about 6 cups