Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Renegade Lunch Lady - An Interview with Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Cooper calls herself the renegade lunch lady. She works to transform school cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students and change school districts’ policies on food spending in favor of foods that are fresh, regional, organic, seasonal and sustainable. Ann has revamped and reformed public school cafeterias in New York, California and now Boulder, Colorado, where I caught up with her recently to talk about her work.

What are the challenges of being a renegade lunch lady? Do you encounter a lot of resistance?

The challenges in Berkeley as well as Boulder are food, finance, human resources and marketing. For finance, it’s about having less than a $1.00 a day to pay for food for a child’s lunch and for facilities- what to do when there is no kitchen available. For human resources it is about how to get staff in place that knows how to cook, not just serve frozen chicken nuggets. And for marketing, how do you get the kids to eat it.

How does school lunch reform positively impact student health, behavior, motivation, and interest in learning?

Kids cannot learn if they are not well nourished. Adults and educators have known this forever, and in fact, that is how the school lunch program got started, because kids were hungry and couldn’t get through the school day without the food. Now our challenge is to feed kids good food. The obesity and diabetes crisis has exacerbated the whole thing.
Berkeley just finished a three-year study with UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health, which will be coming out by beginning of 2010. For now, though, we know anecdotally that if kids are not well nourished they can't think, focus or behave. When you eliminate refined sugar and flour from their diet their behavior and focus improves dramatically.
Also, we now live in a country where two out of four meals are eaten in a car or in front of a screen. When do we socialize and sit down at a table and interact? We need to turn off the Wii, the iPhone, the computers, and the TV and actually communicate. That sense of vital growth and learning is lost if you don't have it at the table.

How can your work give students a sense of context or a frame of reference in the study of math and science?

Gardening and cooking classes give hands-on, experiential learning and it educates in all kinds of curricula. For example, when planting, how much organic compost do you need in so many yards of dirt? That’s practical math and it can easily relate in similar ways to science and other studies.

How do kids respond when allowed to grow or prepare their food?

Although kids are not involved in food preparation in the cafeteria, they do have cooking classes and gardening and they can eat the food they produce. Experiential learning is important. When kids get to have some power over their choices, it gives them a sense of importance and ownership over what is their food.

What does a kitchen look like in your ideal school and who is in it?

We don't have kitchens in all schools; we have centralized production kitchens. They look like real food service operations with equipment that is dedicated to cooking from scratch. The kitchens are staffed with skilled culinarians and other people that care about the preparation of food for kids.

How can parents and communities get renegade lunches for their students?

Every school district has a wellness policy starting in September of 2006. Ask to see that and then eat lunch in one of the schools to see if that policy is being followed. Get like-minded parents together to advocate for better food for our kids. Parents have tremendous power. They elect the school board members so they really can make a difference.

I think what is important is that we need to make changes. We will either pay now for quality foods or we will pay later in a health care crisis. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has said that of the children born in the year 2000 one out of three Caucasians and one out of two Black and Hispanic people will have diabetes in their lifetimes, many by the time they graduate high school. They will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents. With all the money we spend on the war and corporate bailouts, we only spend $8.5 million on feeding 30 million kids, which is less than a dollar per student spent on food. When we live in a country where people spend $5 on their morning coffee, it seems reasonable to spend more on quality foods for children. That really has to change.

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