Chef Ann Cooper is a fighter in the movement to improve school food

Meet the renegade lunch lady

Ann Cooper has been concocting the recipe for school-lunch change for about a decade. Inside schools across the country, the self-proclaimed "Renegade Lunch Lady" works through her Lunch Lessons consulting firm and, more recently, the Food Family Farming Foundation, to reform the way schools feed kids and change how we all think of children's relationship to food.

In September, Cooper will bring her message to Madison as keynote speaker for the Food for Thought Festival, Sept. 24 and 25. Her appearance follows a study her consulting partner Beth Collins did for the Madison School District last year. While the preliminary assessment of the district's Food Services Program found it has a skilled staff and good facilities, it also found that funding challenges and a lack of vision were obstacles to restructuring the program.

Cooper visits at a time when the nation is thinking more about what kids eat and the consequences of a convenience-meal diet. As the child nutrition bill (dubbed the Nutrition for America's Children Act of 2010) winds its way through Congress, Cooper says it's a pivotal time to spotlight the future of school food, with highly visible campaigns under way by first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move and TV chef Jamie Oliver and his School Lunch Project.

In 2006, Cooper wrote Lunch Lessons, her fourth book, a collection of recipes and a prescription for changing the National School Lunch Program. In a conversation with Isthmus, chef Cooper discusses her complex recipe for serving better school lunches and previews her new free online school lunch resource, the Lunch Box (thelunchbox.org).

Isthmus: You published Lunch Lessons four years ago. What has happened since that time with the lunch reform movement?

Cooper: I think more people are interested. We have Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver, and the whole issue has gotten a lot of visibility.

With many schools now financially strapped, is it the right time for districts to look at changing how they serve kids food?

A lot of schools are thinking about how to make these changes happen. It is actually a good time, in part because it's getting the attention and partially because we can't wait anymore. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that of children born in the year 2000, one of three Caucasians and half of Hispanics and African Americans will have diabetes in America.

I don't think there's a general answer [to meeting current financial challenges]. It depends on the demographics, it depends on whether the food service department has a fund balance. There are all kinds of different issues.

How does a school begin making changes in its food program? Is there a simple first step?

It's not simple. It's a lot of work. There are five major challenges every school district needs to overcome to really do this work. They are: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. With food, it's asking where do you get it; finances, how do you pay for it; facilities, what will you do if you don't have stoves or the right equipment; human resources, is staff trained; and marketing, how do you get kids to eat it.

It's not one-size-fits-all. Individual schools don't make change. Certainly there are smaller steps a school district could take, whether it's putting in salad bars or replacing canned vegetables and fruits with fresh. The first step is actually figuring out where they are on the spectrum with the five challenges and coming up with a benchmark assessment. Everything depends on where you start.

In putting together the Lunch Box website, is it your aim to help schools get started?

Absolutely. Our Lunch Box site is up now in beta and has a lot of information that we learned working in the Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif., schools districts. Here, schools can find tools and best practices from me and my partner, Beth Collins. We've done work at the Ross School in New York, plus Traverse City, Mich., Santa Cruz, Calif., and Buffalo, N.Y. All of this information we're putting out in the public domain to help districts that want to segue from processed foods to healthy from-scratch cooking.

Your colleague came to Madison to do a preliminary assessment of its food service program. What was your impression of the situation here?

Beth did a two-day assessment and eventually a report. I didn't do anything on site, but did work on the report presented to Madison. I think they have a very good program, but all programs can be improved.

They are cooking in Madison. Their food production center has cooking facilities and a bake shop. That's a good thing. By and large, I don't believe that cooking in individual schools is a viable option. If centralized cooking facilities could be utilized differently or better, are there ways to segue to more fresh? Perhaps.

Does our nation still face big legislative challenges to changing food programs?

We do need to change policy. Chicken nuggets, Tater Tots and high-fructose corn syrup are in there, so we need to raise the guidelines. Right now, both the Senate and House have bills that are backed by health groups. The legislation really doesn't increase federal funding by much, so I'm afraid I just don't know how much impact it will have. But I'm certainly hopeful.

We've already shown that kids will eat real food, and one of the things we really need to understand is that there's so much marketing of bad food to kids. If we want to have kids eat good food, we have to work with that too. There's a lot of stuff that goes into changing children's relationship with food.

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