Headstrong and healthy
Feisty chef, author and nutritionist is taking on the challenge of kids’ health, one school lunch at a time
Chef Ann Cooper is an ebullient speaker, passionate and vocal in her utter contempt for the status quo. And she will bring the story of her food revolution to Chico as one of the keynote speakers at Chico State’s upcoming This Way to Sustainability Conference.
Cooper’s goal is to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students by taking on the difficult challenge of redesigning the National School Lunch Program.
“It’s the most difficult job I have ever had,” she said, “and the most rewarding.”
Cooper has the credentials, having already made huge strides at schools in several cities back East, including New York City, in Harlem, and now on the West Coast, in Berkeley. She hopes to take the model that she is collaborating on now in the Berkeley Unified School District and bring it to every school in the nation—no small task.
But Cooper, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, has been the master of tasks for many years. She’s been a chef since 1973, and her experience includes a stint as executive chef of the Putney Inn in Vermont, where she served some very famous clientele. She’s also served as president of both The American Culinary Federation of Central Vermont and the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Association (for which she is a board member).
She’s also been involved with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board and Chefs Collaborative, part of an effort to “raise awareness about the value of healthful seasonal, organic and regional foods and nutrition education for America’s children,” as stated on her Web site, www.lunchlessons.org.
At the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, Cooper worked as executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition. She developed a model using food to teach kids. Her pilot program for a national school lunch curriculum used regional, organic, seasonal and sustainable food products. The result was so successful that she was asked by renowned chef Alice Waters to bring her message across the country. Waters is a pioneer in the sustainable food movement and the founder and director of the Chez Panisse Foundation, an innovative program dedicated to changing the way children eat.
Cooper, who goes by Chef Ann, currently works as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) and its 16 public schools, developing sustainable meals served daily to a population of more than 9,000 students. She and her staff begin at 4:30 every morning, making fresh, healthful, delicious food from scratch for the Bay Area students.
The kids say that the food “tastes like a real dinner from home,” according to a recent interview on the television program California Connected.
Cooper is also the author of several books, including Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It. This book explores toxins in our food, why food makes kids sick, and what goes into everyday meals that cause health problems. Her latest book, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, is a user-friendly guide for parents to bring the revolution into their own kitchens via their child’s lunch box. Her next project will be a how-to book for schools and advocates, explaining how parents and administrators can change the status quo.
Cooper scoffs at criticism that what she is doing so well in Berkeley could not translate to other, less affluent school districts.
“It can be done anywhere. It is a misconception to think that outside funding is needed to make innovation happen,” she said. “What we are doing in Berkeley is all funded by school-district money. All school districts have the power to create change.”
In Berkeley, the school lunch revolution has support at every level, from the superintendent to the teachers, who have implemented sustainable, nutrition-focused concepts into the core curriculum, and the parents. In fact, the whole outlook of the district has been modified, said Mark Coplan, BUSD spokesman. The school board started with a policy change: eliminate trans fats, and no more junk food.
The district brought in Cooper as its next step. Her missions: “to stop serving kids plastic cheeses,” to serve them fresh, seasonal food, and to eliminate all frozen food. At least 20 percent of what’s served is organic, and all meals are made from scratch each day. Now, instead of the typical frozen, prepackaged food fare, the children have access to salad bars and are served meals such as pork chops with glazed pears and broccoli.
“Now parents want to come eat lunch here too!” said Coplan, whose desk now holds healthful snacks such as almonds instead of candy bars.
Prior to the development of the School Lunch Initiative in the district, Cooper gave Berkeley schools an “F-minus” for the state of their lunches. Now they are getting passing grades. Still, she says the new national ban on sodas and candy in schools does not go far enough. Schools still allow sports drinks and chocolate milk, which contain way too much sugar.
“It’s a Band-Aid on the problem,” she said. “We need to raise standards.”
In order to keep the ball rolling, Cooper urges parents to petition school boards to push for the development of such programs in their “wellness policy,” a required policy of most agencies as of last year. This is imperative, as poor nutrition is creating epidemic health problems in America’s youth, she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes. Statistics compiled by the agency also predict that, for the first time in United States history, children born after that time will live shorter life spans than their parents.
Cooper calls the problem an atrocity, but says it’s far from insurmountable. She insists that innovation can happen anywhere, as long as people are willing to participate in the process.
“We need more thoughtfulness to eat seasonally,” she said. “We must be more creative. It can be done.”