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'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.
I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.
Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.
At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.
Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"
After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?
As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.