Want to Improve K-12 Education?

Serve Better Food, the Renegade Lunch Lady Says

What’s wrong with school lunches today? Just about everything, the Renegade Lunch Lady says.

Ann Cooper, a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady, is the director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley (California) School District and founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation. Her life’s work is to transform how American children are fed in school from commodity based and highly processed food to highly nutritious and wholesome substitutes that are also delicious.

Food choices in most school lunch programs are not just cheap, they’re dangerous, she said. They are too high in saturated fat and cholesterol and too low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and legumes.

Pizza, corndogs, a buffet of desserts, preservatives, sugar-laced soda and salty snacks make the typical school lunch, Cooper said. This is at least a contributing factor in the surge in obesity rates among U.S. children.

“Obesity rates have more than doubled among infants and toddlers aged 2 to 5, quadrupled in children aged 6 to 11 and more than tripled among adolescents aged 12 to 19,” Cooper said. “The rising rates have health experts concerned about an epidemic of obesity-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, in young people.”

Something as simple as removing chocolate milk from schools gets rid of four to six pounds of sugar from a child’s diet every year, she continued.

Farm to Table Festival, June 12-13

The Renegade Lunch Lady will be one of more than 15 chefs, nutrition experts and farmers who will speak at the first annual Farm to Table Festival, to be held June 12-13 at the University Club on the University of Missouri campus.

Farm to Table FestivalFarm to Table Festival

Sponsored by the University Club of MU, University Catering & Event Services and the American Culinary Federation Central Missouri Chapter, the event will feature demonstrations by celebrity chefs, hands-on workshops, master-class and cooking-at-home presentations, and an outdoors farmers market.

Cooper will describe how school districts across the county have changed their menus and improved the lives of kids.

Cooper said that it is critical that such changes occur as children must have access to healthy food to grow their bodies, minds and future.

“We must feed their knowledge while also providing wholesome sustenance to their physical needs,” she said. “The tools for feeding such change must be equally available to all schools no matter their geography, budget or situation. The relationship children have with food must evolve into a virtuous circle benefiting not just themselves but our society as a whole.”

She points out that the National Institutes of Health has stated that four of the six leading causes of death in the United States are linked to unhealthy diets. “The gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor has widened by almost 50 percent in the last 20 years – much of that can be attributed to diet and exercise,” she cautioned.

Cooper is quick to describe how bad food hinders academic performance. “The education achievement gap, which is truly a social justice issue, will never be shrunk unless we clearly understand that healthy food is linked to academic performance. Hungry or malnourished students cannot learn to the best of their abilities,” Cooper said.

Studies have shown that a diet consisting of foods high in fats, sugars, food additives and artificial colors, and low in vitamins, minerals and other protective factors such as fiber commonly found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can negatively impact learning, she continued.

“Exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals through our food supply is being increasingly linked to such conditions as ADD, ADHD, antibiotic resistance and early onset of puberty, as well as diseases such as cancer and diabetes,” Cooper said.

Healthy and nutrition school food doesn’t have to be unappetizing, she said. Instead of cheap corndogs for lunch, how about chicken fajitas, Cuban black beans, sautéed corn, summer squash and fruit, she asked.

Ann CooperAnn Cooper

Cooper has taken her message to CNN, MSNBC, the Sundance Channel, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ABC News Nightline, Martha Stewart Living and NPR. She has been featured in The New Yorker, New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Time Magazine.

She has spoken at the Smithsonian Institution and was selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture.

She has written four books including Lunch Lessons and Bitter Harvest. She served on the US Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board. She founded the Food Family Farming Foundation to alert parents, school administrators and governmental officials that all children must have access to healthy food to build strong bodies and minds.

She helped change the California’s Berkley School District’s school menu that eliminated trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, and added a variety of fresh fruits. She discarded chocolate milk and desserts, introduced whole grain and whole wheat bread, and instituted a policy of purchasing from regional and local companies.

Cooper is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY and was a chef for more than 30 years including positions with Holland America Cruises, Radisson Hotels, Telluride Ski Resort as well as serving as Executive Chef at the Putney Inn in Vermont.

Research for the Bitter Harvest book provided her an epiphany, she said. No longer could she ignore the environmental and health facts of food served in school. She shifted her career from cooking to advocacy work for a healthier food system. Cooper said she now uses her cooking skills and research background to encourage a sustainable model for schools nationwide and to help K-12 processed food school lunch programs to transition to whole foods that are procured regionally and prepared from scratch.

In 2009, Cooper founded the non-profit Food Family Farming Foundation (F3) to focus on solutions to better school food. F3’s pivotal project is The Lunch Box – a web portal that provides free recipes to support school food reform.

There have been some success stories in changing the typical school lunch fare, Cooper said. “The Boulder Valley School District is overhauling its school lunch program by training staff members in nutrition and incorporating healthier recipes, with the ultimate goal of moving entirely to scratch cooking at all district schools. Children will now receive pesticide-free milk from Colorado Dairy Farms, whole grain breads, and fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The Children’s Storefront School in East Harlem, N.Y., is cutting down on highly processed foods, sugar and corn syrup content. “They’ve turned off the fryer for good and there is no soda. Instead, there is a fun salad bar, more whole grain, fresh fruit and vegetable choices,” Cooper said.

As a way to bring incorporate nutrition and food education components into the lunch program, the Great Valley School District in Malvern, Pa. operates a garden that provides their 16 cafeterias fresh produce, Cooper said. They also do summer nutrition lessons in the garden, and have curriculum based plantings. They host a farmers market that allows students to taste test new fruits and vegetables.