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Renegade Lunch Lady Battles for Better Meals

Chef Ann Cooper, aka The Renegade Lunch Lady, is determined that all children have access to tasty, nutritional school lunches. So shes launched a Web site that could make mystery meat a thing of the past.

With a nickname like The Renegade Lunch Lady and a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Ann Cooper is tough to ignore. A seasoned school nutrition director with 30 years of culinary experience and author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, and four other books, Cooper is on a mission to ensure that all children in America receive healthful, delicious food every day in school, according to a press release. Her efforts over the past decade already have led to better school lunches for tens of thousands of children. Coopers latest venture, a Web site called The Lunch Box, is aimed at helping schools make simple, meaningful changes to their lunch programs.

Cooper currently is the interim nutrition director for the Boulder Valley (Colorado) School District and is the former director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (California) Unified School District. She talked with Education World about her concerns for childrens nutrition and health and her goals for school lunch programs.


Chef Ann Coope

Education World: What prompted you to take on the school lunch program?

Chef Ann Cooper: I started out simply as a chef. My cooking career has taken me from positions with Holland America Cruises to Radisson Hotels to the Telluride Bluegrass and Film Festivals and the Telluride Ski Resort where I catered parties for up to 20,000 people. In 1999, I became the executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition at The Ross School in East Hampton, New York. That was the start of my school food career; its been evolving out of the necessity to work toward reform.

During research for one of my books, Bitter Harvest, my understanding of the connections between food, history, the environment, and health really deepened. The U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention have stated that among the children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and two out of every three African- Americans and Hispanics will contract diabetes in their lifetimes. As a result, that generation will be the first in our country's history to die at a younger age than their parents. Additionally, we are spending more than $260 billion a year on diet-related illness, much of it attributable to diabetes and much of that preventable. We need policies that will give children healthy choices.

Recently, I founded the Food Family Farming Foundation (F3). F3s main project is The Lunch Box, a free Web-based portal providing relevant information and pragmatic tools necessary for schools and school districts to make the necessary changes in the cafeteria.

My training as a chef taught me how food can be a vehicle for real change, and I cant think of a more important demographic to serve that change to than children.

EW: What are the obstacles to improving school lunches?

Cooper: Advocates across the country are interested in bringing real food to the children in their communities. However, schools face five major challenges:

My training as a chef taught me how food can be a vehicle for real change, and I cant think of a more important demographic to serve that change to than children.
  1. Food: Where are we going to get it and how are we going to be sure its healthful?
  2. Finance: How are we going to pay for it?
  3. Facilities: How are we going to cook it, where will we store it, and do we have the refrigeration necessary?
  4. Human resources: How are we going to train staff members and give them the confidence to be able to cook healthful food for our kids?
  5. Marketing: How do we get kids to eat this healthful but delicious food? The Lunch Box will provide the answers and resources to address all these concerns.

EW: What are some simple steps schools can take to change their lunches?

Cooper: Schools can -- and are -- taking two steps that that do not involve enormous structural changes -- offering fresh fruits with lunch and introducing a salad bar. Additionally, when community interest is high, adding an edible garden to school property is a fairly simple way to bring fresh food to children and connect them to it in a positive, tangible way.

EW: Schools frequently say they must sell what kids will eat and that often is whatever resembles fast food. What needs to be done to make nutritious lunches tasty and affordable?

Cooper: I have found that if you offer children real, tasty food, instead of sugary snacks, they will enjoy it and ask for more. But we also need to establish their relationship with food. Creating hands-on experiential learning through cooking and gardening classes will help them be more in tune with real food and its benefits. Making a change toward a system that supports that certainly will cost more money than the current system; however we're going to either pay now to fix the system or pay later with higher health care costs.

EW: Who prepared the information in The Lunch Box?

Cooper: This is an effort of the Food Family Farming Foundation, which has a staff of content providers and school nutrition industry experts to keep the content current and ensure its credibility.

Schools can -- and are -- taking two steps that do not involve enormous structural changes -- offering fresh fruits with lunch and introducing a salad bar.

EW: Is there a way to assess if more healthful eating at school translates to more healthful eating overall?

Cooper: Ive interviewed children before starting the program and they typically complain about school lunches, noting that the hot dogs bounce! And they dont want to eat it. When we start serving wholesome food, they like it. In Boulder, after only a few weeks, the number of lunches served is up 20 percent. In Berkeley, a different fresh food was highlighted on each month's menu and was the focus of cooking and gardening lessons. In February, for example, greens were highlighted. After students learned about Swiss chard, collard greens, kale, or mustard greens in class, many had the opportunity to prepare snacks with them -- and the majority thoroughly enjoyed them. The food is delicious. Connecting with it and learning about it is essential to enjoyment. Positive habits and memories from our youth can last a lifetime; meanwhile children have the chance to be well nourished, allowing them to have more healthful bodies and minds.

EW: What changes have you seen in schools since starting your effort and the portal?

Cooper: The Lunch Box is in its very beginning beta-test stages. Were just scratching the surface in terms of development. However, the initial response has been overwhelming. People all over the country are asking what they can do and taking small and big steps to improve school food. In our recent partnership with Whole Food Markets School Lunch Revolution campaign, more than 300,000 people made donations to support The Lunch Box while they shopped for groceries. In this country, theres a groundswell of people who care about childrens health.

This e-interview with Ann Cooper is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.




Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010, 2015 Education World

Originally published 01/19/2010
Last updated 06/14/2015