“But if I truly could only have one wish that would come true, it would be to see food literacy as part of the academic curriculum in every school in the country. It’s surprising that the thing we do multiple times a day from the time we’re born to when we die — eating — is not taught in schools. Let’s make that change for the health of all of our children.” – Chef Ann Cooper
Chef Ann Cooper — aka “The Renegade Lunch Lady” — is a celebrated author, chef, educator and an enduring advocate for better food for all children. A chef for more than 30 years, she currently serves as the director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District. She is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, was selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) to focus on solutions to the school food crisis. CAF’s pivotal project is The Lunch Box — a Web-based portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and other resources to support schools transitioning to scratch-cooked meals made with whole, healthy food.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your latest project(s)?
Chef Ann: The Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) is excited to announce our new School Food Institute. This online program launches in September, 2017 and will offer 8 initial courses designed to provide comprehensive school food operations learning focused on a cook from scratch production model. This initiative provides school nutrition employees a front row seat in Chef Ann’s class room, with teaching and instruction around CAF’s nationally recognized tools and resources.
Q: In what ways has the Kellogg Fellows network facilitated, supported and/or enhanced your work over the years?
Chef Ann: The Fellowship has provided me with support, networking and access to expertise that has helped promote the Chef Ann Foundation & our work.
Q: You have said, “I envision a time, soon, when being a chef working to feed children fresh, delicious and nourishing food will no longer be considered renegade.” How close are we?
Chef Ann: We still have a lot of work to do. School districts are moving in that direction and the Obama administration has done a phenomenal job of helping us move in that direction for the past seven years. But we still have a long way to go and some districts are just farther along than others. The reauthorization of the national school lunch program is still pending; if Congress rolls back the guidelines in the bill, we’ll see some challenges to healthy school meals.
Q: What would you like to hear presidential candidates talking about?
Chef Ann: I’d like to hear that every child — every day — will have access to healthy foods in school and that no child in our nation will ever go hungry. What I am hearing about on a daily basis is the budget, national security and terrorism
There is nothing more important to national security than the health of our children. We really need to change the political discussion to focus on the health of our children. We’re spending a tremendous amount of money as a nation treating diabetes and obesity each year: about ¼ of a trillion dollars. We could improve the health of our children, the economy and the environment by improving how we feed our children.
Q: What worries you most right now?
Chef Ann: I worry that a new administration could roll back school food guidelines. I worry about the amount of processed foods that are allowed in schools. If we can’t change to whole foods, we’re going to see the health of our children and our planet decline. I’m disappointed that considering environmental sustainability was dropped from the Dietary Guidelines. Sustainability is vital. Farming practices, chemicals, the health of farm workers ... all of these things are tied together. A healthy triple bottom line is really important: People — Planet — Prosperity!
Q: What do you find most hopeful?
Chef Ann: Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has been extremely helpful and her hard work on children’s health fills my heart with gratitude. It’s hopeful that so many people are actually doing work on these important issues. School food service professionals and advocates are doing a lot right...there are a lot of great things happening in schools across the country. For that we should all be grateful.
Q: If you could make one change, what would it be?
Chef Ann: I’d focus on eliminating highly processed food from school menus. Kids need fresh fruits and vegetables. There also needs to be a stronger educational and support component for schools to serve the healthiest possible food. We need to educate schools on how to source healthy food and how to make their programs financially stable. Schools need help with facilities — they need more and better equipment to segue from highly processed to scratch cooked food. There’s also the human resource aspect, which is training staff, teaching our teams how to cook real whole foods. And finally there is education and marketing, which is getting kids to eat healthy whole food and to eat a rainbow of colors on their plates everyday.
But if I truly could only have one wish that would come true, it would be to see food literacy as part of the academic curriculum in every school in the country. It’s surprising that the thing we do multiple times a day from the time we’re born to when we die — eating — is not taught in schools. Let’s make that change for the health of all of our children.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the UC Food Observer and is re-published here with permission.