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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.
Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is famous for all sorts of things. Malls are packed with folks exchanging those holiday sweaters that don't fit just right. It's the week those same folks pledge to never again eat another frosted sugar cookie or candy cane (hence the sweater issues). It's also the week the media saturates the public with dozens of "Best of Year" lists.
This will not (although it could) be a treatise on the value of "alone time" for a healthy marriage, though. Nor will it be an ode to how nice it was for me to have a few days off from lunch-packing, carpool-driving and homework-nagging.
For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.
If I had my druthers, I'd sit out the entire shopping week that follows Thanksgiving. Black Friday, for starters, has corrupted the fine art of bargain shopping and turned it into a gladiator sport. There is no percentage off that is worth losing sleep, or even worse an eye, over. Especially if you have kids in tow.
When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
Many of the pop-culture seasonal touchpoints of my youth are completely lost on my kids. You see, while I may have memorized every word to both the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser's songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, I'm pretty sure the only Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special my kids have ever seen has been Rudolph.
I am so thrilled that the United Way is sponsoring a Teen Gift Drive this holiday season. Sure, teen "wants" often aren't as fun to shop for as precious baby dolls and sweet Lego sets. But middle and high school kids still "need" to feel valued and loved during this time of year. And helping a family in need to provide this for their child is a wonderful way to get in the spirit.