Lessons from Ann Cooper’s school-food revolution

by Ed Bruske, via Grist.org,

Ann Cooper is conducting a clinic in Boulder on how to rescue school food. Is anyone paying attention?

In remaking the lunch line in Boulder schools, Cooper has revealed the federally subsidized school meals program as living somewhere in the Stone Age. Not merely underfunded, school kitchens are woefully under-managed and under-equipped to function in a digital age. No wonder they constantly run in the red. Schools are incapable of serving real food any more because they are mired in lack of imagination, lack of will, and above all, lack of professional know-how when it comes to producing meals with recognizable whole ingredients.

In other words, Cooper has proven that serving better food in school is not just about getting a bigger handout from Uncle Sam. Turning out wholesome meals, as opposed to the reheated junk so many school districts pass off as food, can be done on the current budget. But getting there takes guts, hard work, and brains — hardly the qualities that win advancement in public-school bureaucracies.

“People just don’t get that the existing system already has virtually all the money it needs,” said school-food consultant Kate Adamick, who has made a career out of showing school districts how they can capture millions of dollars by correcting a multitude of inefficiencies.

Myth busting

Why do schools need hired guns like Adamick and Cooper to get the job done? Why are school food service directors so often the greatest obstacle to progress? In case after case, school district after school district, it is the career school food functionary who digs in her heels and shouts, “It can’t be done! Kids won’t eat healthier food! We have to feed them junk to make our program work!”

It’s not just about money: where better school food is concerned, leadership is in critically short supply.

Cooper explodes the myth embraced by so many school food service directors that they must offer cheese-covered soft pretzels, Subway sandwiches, corn dogs, and Eskimo pies to make ends meet. One of her first acts after taking over in Boulder was to abolish the á la carte foods the schools were serving. And it wasn’t just because the food was bad. Trying to operate cafeterias like convenience stores, she found, was a drain on resources that did not yield the bounty that is popularly assumed.

“When you really look into all the loss in product, the storage problems, the waste, the time needed for invoicing, the staffing requirements, we don’t believe it’s really profitable,” said Cooper. “And it takes away from the core mission” — which is, of course, nourishing children.

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