Renegade School-Lunch Lady: Chef Ann Cooper

Renegade School-Lunch Lady: Chef Ann Cooper

It’s a worry to many parents: what kind of nutrition are their kids getting in school lunches? The short answer is, not much. They’re getting processed food, trans fats, drinks with high-fructose corn syrup, and any number of other evils that contribute to low nutrition and childhood obesity.

If you’ve asked anyone who has gone in and tried to solve this problem, you’ll have found that solutions don’t come easily. It’s a self-sustaining problem: The school systems have very limited budgets for lunches, and the only food affordable is cheap, non-nutritious, and laden with chemicals and fats. There are plenty of local farmers, organic food producers and the like who are more than willing to provide healthy foods for schools—but they can’t afford to do so at the rates schools are forced to pay.

It was recently announced that President Obama’s new proposed budget includes an additional $1 billion for 10 years for school lunches. But if you do the math, you’ll discover that this amounts to an extra 10 to 15 cents per lunch, which hardly makes a difference, and if adjusted for inflation over time will likely make no difference at all.

Not long ago, a celebrity chef named Ann Cooper actually confronted the nutritional issues facing our children in school. Not only has she taken the entire problem to heart, she is now fully dedicated to bringing healthy lunches to our schoolchildren.

Meet Chef Ann

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, Ann Cooper has been a chef for more than 30 years. She has held positions with Holland America Line, Radisson Hotels and Telluride Ski Resort and as Executive Chef at the renowned Putney Inn in Vermont. With such a résumé, one might wonder what brought her to fight for nutritious school lunches for kids.

“I’m about as unlikely a candidate to be a school food advocate as you could find,” Chef Ann told Organic Connections. “I never knew what kids ate and never cared what they ate. I was a white-tablecloth ‘celebrity chef.’ The worst thing that could happen was on a Saturday night the host would come running in and say, ‘Chef, Chef, we have screaming children on table 19. What should we do?’ And I’d be likely to say, ‘What are they doing in my restaurant? Don’t they know better?’”

The story of how Ann became involved in children’s nutrition actually began before she had the idea to do so. In 2000, Ann published a book entitled Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It. The book was the culmination of her own investigation into modern food processing and the benefits of locally and sustainably grown food, to which she had committed herself.

After she had completed the book, but before it was released, she got an unexpected phone call from Ross School in East Hampton, New York, and was asked to apply for the job of Executive Chef and Director of Wellness and Nutrition. Her response was, at first, less than enthusiastic. “I literally looked at the phone and said, ‘What do you want? You’ve got to be kidding!’” Ann related. “But they said, ‘Come down and see what we’re doing.’”

Ann did go over to the school, where she met with Courtney Ross, the school’s founder and widow of Steve Ross, former CEO of Time Warner. One of Ms. Ross’s firm missions was to change the way American children were fed, and one of her core values was wellness. In listening to her, Ann became enamored with the idea and decided it was time to make a difference.

“If you’re in fine dining, you’re feeding the upper 5 or 10 percent of the financial demographic of the world,” Ann said. “I got to wondering why it was that everybody didn’t get this great food. I decided to do as a number of my colleagues had done in different ways and follow my heart. In the end I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to drop out. I’m done being a celebrity chef and I’m going to be a lunch lady.’ That was in 1999 and it’s been more than a decade now.”

Taking It to the Parents and the Government

Over the next 10 years, Ann’s activity base widened as she vigilantly fought for school lunches for children. She has taken her message far and wide and has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek and Time magazine, as well as having a healthy list of television and major conference appearances. In 2006, Ann (along with co-author Lisa Holmes) published an award-winning book entitled Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.

Now, with a broad network of parents and food activists, Ann’s work has culminated in a remarkable website called Chef Ann Cooper: Renegade Lunch Lady.

Why, one might reasonably ask, would serving healthy and nutritious food to children be considered “renegade”?

Ann laughs in response and says, “What is that? What is it about serving fresh broccoli that would be seen as renegade? You know, it’s because it sort of flies in the face of agribusiness. It flies in the face of Kraft and the American Beverage Association and, frankly, in the face of the National Dairy Council with their chocolate milk campaign. There is so much money to be made in these 5.4 billion lunches we’re serving every year that big business stands to lose money if we serve healthy food.”

But Ann is determined. On her site, parents can find tools to assist them in changing children’s diets both within their areas and in their homes. There are recipes and fun items for kids and parents, such as the Healthy Kids Nutrition Report Card and Meal Wheel, as well as detailed guides to the nutrition children really need. This site also makes it easy for parents to write their members of Congress to inform them that standards need to be raised for the school lunch program. A subscriber can remain informed through Ann Alerts, and by taking the School Food Challenge can make his or her activity count toward the overall goal.

Click on any image above to see a larger version.

A separate site, The Lunch Box, is designed to directly assist schools in making their meals more nutritious. “After working on the project for some time, I got a planning grant from Kellogg Foundation, and then subsequent to that I started my own foundation and decided to build this Web portal TheLunchBox.org,” Ann said. “In May of this year I partnered with Whole Foods Market and four other foundations, and we raised a million dollars in 100 days. We are now hard at work building the site and getting it out of beta testing. Our objective is to put out there in the public domain, free of charge, all the tools, resources, menus and recipes that a school district would need in order to change their food. In that way we’re taking away some of their roadblocks.”

In addition to food preparation directions, there will also be a Technical Tools section providing budget management models and procurement resources; a Resource & Education section containing case studies of schools that have already made a transition, and communication techniques to inform parents and students about the new lunch program as well as other food, health and nutrition programs; a Community section that acts as a meeting place for parents, schools, students and advocates; and much more.

Let’s Get It Done

As can be seen, a great deal of Ann’s effort is being spent bypassing the less-than-adequate measures currently being taken by the government to raise school lunch standards.

“If the president’s budget is approved for a billion dollars over the next 10 years, it is a real sad attempt at doing anything,” Ann remarked. “If we get that billion dollars, it will only end up being somewhere around 10 to 15 cents per lunch per day. That’s less than half an apple. Further, they’re talking about implementing the Institute of Medicine Standards in three to five years.”

The standards she is talking about were recently proposed by the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit group that advises the government and consumers on health issues. Companies that supply a majority of school lunches have pledged to meet these standards in the next three to five years by including more grains, fruits and vegetables and to also meet standards for fat, sugar, sodium and whole grains.

But, understandably, three to five years is not fast enough. “The current guidelines for nutrition are so low that chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, chocolate milk, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, popsicles, Pop-Tarts and corn dogs can all be fed to our children on a daily basis, and then we wonder why we have a problem,” said Ann. “The Institute of Medicine Standards may not be the be-all and end-all, but they are so far above what we have today that we ought to adopt them right now. I mean, if it were your child who had high blood pressure, who had diabetes or was obese or had hypertension, and the doctor said it was critical, you wouldn’t say, ‘I think I’ll start dealing with this in three to five years.’ You would say, ‘We’re going to start dealing with this in three to five minutes.’ And the reason we’re not willing and we don’t have the political will to adopt these things sooner is because big business doesn’t want to have to make changes that fast. If we pull soda or flavored water out of schools, then how are they going to make money? If it were their kid, they’d do something today. The idea that they’re not going to do something for three to five years is just unconscionable.”

Ann concludes with a request for parents everywhere. “I would hope that all the readers would check out TheLunchBox.org and use it as a tool to help their schools change, because schools need all the help they can get. We need public/private partnerships; we need parents helping; and I know The Lunch Box is also one more tool to help schools overcome the barriers to their being able to make the positive changes our children all need.”

To learn more about Chef Ann and discover additional ways to help, visit her website at www.chefann.com.

To preview The Lunch Box test site, visit www.thelunchbox.org.

Copies of Ann Cooper’s books can be purchased through our bookstore.