Chef, Food Activist and Renegade Lunch Lady – Ann Cooper
Chef Ann Cooper is a renegade lunch lady. She works to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students - one school lunch at a time.
At The Ross School in East Hampton, NY, Chef Ann served as the executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition, developing an integrated school lunch curriculum centered on regional, organic, seasonal and sustainable meals. The implementation of her pilot wellness program proved successful, and Chef Ann was invited to work with schools across the country. She has transformed public school cafeterias in New York City, Harlem and Bridgehampton, NY, and now in Berkeley, CA, to teach more students why good food choices matter by putting innovative strategies to work and providing fresh, organic lunches to all students.
Currently, Chef Ann is the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), improving meals at 16 public schools with a population of over 9,000 students. Chef Ann is at the forefront of the movement to transform the National School Lunch Program into one that places greater emphasis on the health of students than the financial health of a select few agribusiness corporations. Chef Ann's lunch menus emphasize regional, organic, fresh foods, and nutritional education, helping students build a connection between their personal health and where their food comes from.
Chef Ann's newest book, "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children" (Harper Collins, Sept. 2006), is overflowing with strategies for parents and school administrators to become engaged with issues around school food - from public policy to corporate interest. It includes successful case studies of school food reform, resources that can help make a difference and healthy, kid-friendly recipes that can be made at home, or by the thousands for a public school cafeteria.
Chef Ann is the former executive chef of the Putney Inn in Vermont. Her commitment to healthy, fresh food drove her to work with school administrators, politicians and parents - the people with the power over school food - to guarantee that wholesome food choices are available to kids. Chef Ann, the past president of The American Culinary Federation of Central Vermont, is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, and the former president and current board member for Women's Chefs and Restaurateurs. She also sat on the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board and Chefs Collaborative - all in an effort to raise awareness about the value of healthful seasonal, organic, and regional foods and nutrition education for America's children.
Through collaborative work with organizations including the Center for Ecoliteracy, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Food and Society Policy Fellowship, Chef Ann has made tremendous strides in a variety of school wellness programs.
Ann Cooper is, simply put, a hero. She is one of those special kind of people who is out in the world everyday with her sleeves rolled up, ready to do what needs to be done. Ann Cooper is a trained chef, working to create, establish and promote healthy cafeteria lunch programs for kids because that is what needs to be done.
Ann Cooper is very simply –
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that 35 percent of our children are overweight, which statistically predicts that children born in the year 2000 will be the first in our nation's history to die at a younger age than their parents.
DR: Tell me about your life and your work.
AC: I am director of nutritional services for Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). I have 90 employees in 17 locations. We are doing about 7,000 meals a day. It is really a huge undertaking because in just two years we have gone from typical school food - all highly processed, all frozen, all prepackaged -- to salad bars in every school, everything made from scratch, almost no processed foods at all, hormone and anti-biotic free, trans fat and high fructose and corn syrup free and all the grain products are whole grain.
AC: We have just really done a lot and in just two years, which is a very short amount of time. It's been this Herculean effort to really see what is possible and what we can do to really change how kids eat.
DR: Two years does seem like a really short period of time to accomplish something like that. What were some of the obstacles that you faced and how frustrated did you get or not get?
AC: I got very, very frustrated.
The big challenges that I faced that I think most school districts face are, first of all, facilities.
Most of these facilities are either very old or non-existent. I don't even have a stove in my central kitchen where I cook a couple thousand meals a day. The whole thing around facilities and what schools have and what they don't have, is really huge.
The next big challenge is human resources. I have 90 employees dealing with kids and food and two were supposed to be cooks and none could cook when I got here. Because all of the food was frozen, they didn't even have knives. They just had box cutters and can crushers. So really, training untrained staff is a huge challenge. There is not enough money in the system. The national re-imbursement is $2.49 and the state is $0.21 so that's $2.70 to feed a kid a delicious nutritious meal of 700 calories that includes milk and fruit - it's impossible to do it on $2.70. And, in most school districts, ours included, two thirds of that money goes to payroll and overhead, which leaves $0.90 for food. This is a huge challenge.
Marketing is a huge challenge.
Big corporations spend 20 billion dollars a year marketing non-nutrient foods to kids and so when we try and change their relationship to food and try to change what they eat, that is a huge challenge to overcome - the big marketing dollars for foods that kids just shouldn't eat.
Lastly, procurement is an issue.
It's probably less of a problem for me because I am a trained chef, but how you buy and what you buy and how you can get it and care for it is a challenge.
Join me on my mission to change the way our children are eating. Together, we’ll tackle outdated district spending policies, commodity-based food service organizations, political platforms with no mention of school food or child health — and ultimately the USDA — to ensure that kids everywhere have wholesome, nutritious, delicious food at school.
Sign up for "Ann Alerts” or take the "School Food Challenge" to uncover new ideas, strategies, tips and recipes. Your passion and commitment will help us make a difference for future generations. Keep on fighting the good fight.
Renegade Lunch Lady
DR: What are the differences that you have noticed in the kids, in terms of attitude and energy levels and performance - that kind of thing?
AC: I can only give you anecdotal answers...
We just finished the first year of a three year evaluation with The Center for Weight and health at U.C. Berkeley. They are looking at all of those kinds of issues.
I will tell you that when you feed kids good food, behavior is better. You see less tardiness and absenteeism. We do universal breakfast, which means that every kid gets breakfast in the classroom. I see kids behaving better and thinking better and being able to perform better, even though we don't have the hard stats yet.
DR: This is exciting work. The more that you talk about this, the sadder I get that my daughter doesn't have this kind of program at her school.
AC: Does she go to private school?
AC: You know there's almost no excuse for a private school...
DR: Well, parents are frustrated about it. The kind of food that the kids get for lunch concerns me. The quality is absolutely...
...What is the quality that you value most in yourself and how does that quality serve you?
AC: The quality that I value most in myself is compassion. I'm not sure that serves me in all of this.
I think that the quality that serves me the most is tenacity. Just this passion and bulldog tenacity -- getting up everyday and telling everybody that we can do it and that we will do it.
DR: What about other people? What is the quality that you have found in others that has served you in the work that you do?
AC: I think that it is almost the same - passion for the work and really caring about the work. Maybe it's caring and not being afraid of putting yourself out there and saying --
"No! It stops here! It's going to change here. We don't have to keep doing the bad stuff that we've been doing."
DR: Is there anything that you've been surprised to learn about yourself?
AC: No not really.
If anything I am surprised that I still make the same stupid mistakes sometimes.
DR: What are the things that keep you up at night and, on the flip side of that, what inspires you to get up in the morning?
AC: Well, the things that keep me up at night are the things that kept me up last night, if I could be so specific.
It's the silly stuff like,
- "Can we put delicata squash on the menu?"
- "How much prep time will this or that that take?"
- "How am I going to pay for a holiday staff party because I really think that's important and we don't really have the money?"
I worry about how we are doing on our budget. One of my employee's husband was just operated on - I wonder how that's going.
The thing that gets me up everyday is the kids. It's just the kids. It's seeing the kids in the gardens and in the cooking classes. It's seeing the kids eating the food and talking about the food.
It's all about the kids.
TED TALKS: Ann Cooper - Reinventing the school lunch
Speaking at the 2007 EG conference, "renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper talks about the coming revolution in the way kids eat at school -- local, sustainable, seasonal and even educational food.
DR: It's nice to know that there is a generation that is being groomed to care about these things at such a fundamental level.
What do you know "now" that you wish you knew "then"?
AC: How far back is "then"?
DR: As far back as you want to go - or not.
AC: I really didn't know how hard this was going to be.
This is the hardest thing I have ever done. I wish I had known how hard it was going to be and how political it was going to be. I wish that I had known how self-serving people can be. That has been really difficult and really unfortunate.
DR: How would knowing that have changed anything that you have done?
AC: I don't know that it would have changed anything but it might have given me a little ...I might not be so stressed about all of it if I had just known that this is what it is and I've got to just deal.
DR: Would you change anything about yourself if you could?
AC: I am so intensely focused.
A lot of people often think I am rude because, between being pretty focused and being shy, I don't walk into a room and just start talking to people. By the time I see people I may have already been working three or four hours and I'm on to the next thing and so I'll walk up to somebody and if I don't ask about something personal they might get offended...
So, I guess if I was going to change something about myself I would slow down so that I could be a little bit more social. I don't need it for myself but I think others need it from me.
DR: Do you ever stop to consider the impact of your work on a national or global level, or what the impact of your work might be on future generations?
AC: Well I do think about it.
I am in the media a lot. People like you write me. Everyday I get emails from people whom I have never met who live all over the country and some of whom live outside of the country. They have read about something I have done or read about the work I do and they get in touch with me. They want to reprint something I've written or quote something I've said, or use my Meal Wheel. It's pretty gratifying to know that I am reaching people and having a positive influence on kids because that is what this work is about.
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
AC: A hundred years from now I want to be remembered for -
being a catalyst for starting a school food revolution.
Lunch Lessons Books by Ann Cooper
Remember how simple school lunches used to be? You'd have something from every major food group, run around the playground for a while, and you looked and felt fine. But today it's not so simple. Schools are actually feeding the American crisis of childhood obesity and malnutrition. Most cafeterias serve a veritable buffet of processed, fried, and sugary foods, and although many schools have attempted to improve, they are still not measuring up: 78 percent of the school lunch programs in America do not meet the USDA's nutritional guidelines.
Chef Ann Cooper has emerged as one of the nation's most influential and most respected advocates for changing how our kids eat. In fact, she is something of a renegade lunch lady, minus the hairnet and scooper of mashed potatoes. Ann has worked to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms. In Lunch Lessons, she and Lisa Holmes spell out how parents and school employees can help instill healthy habits in children.
Behind every great chef is a great mother. It's in mother's kitchen where we make our first taste discoveries, where we learn our first lessons in cooking, where we understand that food is not just for feeding the body but also for nourishing the soul.
In this heartwarming collection, more than 50 of the most celebrated women chefs working in America today share cherished heirloom recipes, along with the memories that make these dishes so special. More than a cookbook. In Mother's Kitchen is a testament to the many ways a mother can shape a child's life through cooking.
The history of food is not as straightforward as it may seem. Food isn't just food. It is ritual, tradition and memory." So begins Ann Cooper's groundbreaking new book on the history of sustenance. Cooper, a renowned chef and graduate of New York's famed Culinary Institute of America, expertly guides us from the roots of agriculture in North America through the profound changes initiated by the Industrial Revolution, all the way up to the present day, offering analyses of recent controversies such as Europe's campaign against Frankenstein food and the genetic engineering of plants and animals in the United States. Throughout, Cooper takes both a macro and micro approach, examining the effect politics, technology, war, international trade and agribusiness have had on the world's food supply, as well as the changing social patterns which have made a family meal at the table almost a relic of the past.
Passionate, political, informed and engaging, Bitter Harvest is filled with fascinating facts and anecdotes. Cooper offers a comprehensive analysis of the issue of sustainability, arguing persuasively why we must begin to change everything from the way food is shipped to the basic components of our diets.
Touching on virtually every aspect of the food culture, Bitter Harvest is a vibrant example of the emergence of the chef as a political voice to be reckoned with. A food manifesto for the new millennium, it is a must-read for anyone concerned with health, nutrition and the future of our planet. You will never look at your dinner plate in quite the same way again.