New Play ‘Lunch Lady Courage’ Puts the Healthy Food Crusade Onstage

  • April 2, 2013
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HSC believes that healthy eating deserves attention in schools as well as in our wider culture. To really make a difference, health needs to be the topic of conversation from the playground to the dinner table and everywhere in between. Here, we learn how one theater company took the lunch conversation from the cafeteria to the stage.

HSC believes that healthy eating deserves attention in schools as well as in our wider culture. To really make a difference, health needs to be the topic of conversation from the playground to the dinner table and everywhere in between. Here, we learn how one theater company took the lunch conversation from the cafeteria to the stage.

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Ana is a cafeteria worker who wants to serve healthy meals but discovers a shadow economy in her midst. The school has a black market set up for snacks: Donuts and candy are key fundraising collateral, a student hawks tortas from his backpack and a teacher sells Hot Cheetos to pay for classroom supplies. This is the world of one high school in Los Angeles as imagined by local theatre company Cornerstone in Lunch Lady Courage, a funny and thought-provoking play stirring conversation around school food.

The play is part of the theatre’s “Hunger Cycle,” the latest community-focused play series from Cornerstone, and continues its ongoing work to explore big issues affecting local communities through the performing arts.

Howard says: “I was especially interested in working on a school-based project that looked at food and hunger and learning, that would put us in partnership with public high schools in Los Angeles.”

More than a year ago, Cornerstone entered into a partnership with the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), a pilot school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with students primarily living within a nine-block radius of the campus. The result? A play by and for students, about students, dialoguing about an issue affecting them most.

Lunch Lady Courage takes its name and much of its inspiration from Mother Courage and Her Children, one of the best-known works by legendary German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

“I was looking for a play where the stakes are high, and Cornerstone has a long relationship with adapting and responding to Brecht,” Howard says. “Mother Courage is about a working woman, a single mother of young children, who sells food, among other things, to soldiers in a war and is really trying to make her way through very difficult circumstances and succeeds and fails at varying moments in the play. It seemed like an exciting opportunity to bring a lot of different interests together.”

As with all of the Hunger Cycle productions, an extensive amount of on-the-ground dialogue and research went into the creation of Lunch Lady Courage. In addition to his work with LAHSA, Howard spent a lot of time researching and talking to students about the school food landscape in a number of LAUSD high schools.  He spent time with a culinary arts program in the district, observed high school farm and garden projects, as well as in a high school where students are creating journalism projects highlighting diabetes and transforming corner stores.

Over the course of creating the play, Howard found a number of conflicting and often mixed perceptions about school food. He heard many negative opinions from people who advised school food service to “just do better.” He says he has come to realize how challenging the conflicting needs that come with running a school can be, and the stigma that affects food service employees.

“That can sometimes manifest in feelings that perhaps folks who work in school food don’t feel respected all the time,” Howard says. “This has been a nice opportunity for LAHSA students to come into contact and conversation with the people who serve their food.” To continue with the community-building, a local food service worker was cast in the production and has served as a consultant for the play and an educator to help students learn what it’s like on the other side of the counter.

The performances will take place on Thursdays through Saturdays beginning Thursday, March 28th and ending Saturday, April 13th, at the Cocoanut Grove Theatre at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles. Student performances will also be held on April 3rd and April 10th. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $20.

Those interested in furthering the dialogue can join the team at “Thursdays at the Table,” a dialogue with community members, organizations, activists and students on hunger, food equity and nutrition in the community following each Thursday performance of Lunch Lady Courage. Students from Santee High School’s CAKE (Culinary Art Kids Eat) will prepare refreshments. The event is free and general admission.

There is one message in particular with which Howard hopes his audience leaves: the next generation is ready to defend its future.

“Change is happening, and we’re in good hands,” Howard says. “The next generation, wherever these students decide to go in their work and in their careers, important things are happening now — and we can do a lot as adults, as citizens, as voters and taxpayers, to help the next generation finish the work that’s already being done. They’re ready.”