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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.

Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.

A summer camp quiz for parents

If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.

Mama Madison: Lessons in dining out

I know, in the grand scheme of things, that my kid issues, when it comes to dining out, absolutely pale in comparison to those of parents whose kids have special needs. Many kids, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, are disturbed by changes in their routine, or anxious around noisy places. They may not be able tolerate waiting for a table or standing in line. So unfortunately, many of these families just avoid eating out at restaurants altogether.

Mama Madison: Natural vs. un-natural parenting

It's weird to admit this, especially in a city surrounded by as much outdoor beauty as Madison. But frankly, I'm just not that into nature. I'm more of an indoor kind of gal. Give me an afternoon at the Chazen or the Wisconsin Historical Museum over the Arboretum or Olbrich Gardens any day.

Mama Madison: Theatrical talent close to home

Lavish costumes, gorgeous sets, a full orchestra and a concession stand where nothing cost more than two bucks and you have a pitch perfect experience at the theater. Oh, and did I mention the ticket prices were just $10 dollars apiece? One could afford to take the whole family for a live theater experience for less than an evening at the Lego movie would cost including popcorn.

Mama Madison: Race to shame

I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.

Hancock Center addresses bullying through body movement

It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders -- 10 boys and six girls -- enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.

Mama Madison: Get in the picture

Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.

Mama Madison: Welcome to the Parenting Olympics

Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.

Mama Madison: Facebook's instant nostalgia fix

Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.

Mama Madison: The kindness question

Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.

Toddlers take to tablets

Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.

Mama Madison: Science or study hall?

This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.

Mama Madison: MTV provides a teachable moment

In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.

Mama Madison: Planning for the MLK holiday

In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.

Mama Madison: The long vacation

It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!