Renegade Lunch Lady

The clock is ticking and back-to-school sales are bombarding us every time we turn on the TV or open a newspaper. At the same time, farmer’s markets are at their peak with the bounty of the harvest. Is it possible to connect the two?

The answer may be Ann Cooper, a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady. She’s on a crusade to persuade schools across the country to transform lunches into healthy, appetizing meals. Furthermore, she is teaching students about nutrition through hands-on work in gardens and a curriculum that covers the fundamentals of food.

Ann’s mission is to change the way our children are eating. Her goal is to tackle outdated district spending policies, commodity-based food service organizations, political platforms with no mention of school food or child health – and ultimately the USDA – to ensure that kids everywhere have wholesome, nutritious, delicious food at school.

At The Ross School in East Hampton, NY, Chef Ann served as the executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition, developing an integrated school lunch curriculum centered on regional, organic, seasonal and sustainable meals. The implementation of her pilot wellness program proved successful, and Chef Ann was invited to work with schools across the country. She has transformed public school cafeterias in New York City, Harlem and Bridgehampton, NY.

Chef Ann got the call and is currently the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), improving meals at 16 public schools with a population of over 9,000 students. Chef Ann’s lunch menus emphasize regional, organic, fresh foods, and nutritional education, helping students build a connection between their personal health and where their food comes from.

Cooper is also the author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, a practical guide to the system and how it should change – it has a wealth of information on the current (and dire) state of school food, the actions that can be taken to change it, a policy guide, a resource guide, and recipes for breakfast and lunch, complete with nutrition information.

In conjunction with the School Lunch Initiative (SLI) and the Chez Panisse Foundation, Ann’s goal is to connect formal academic subjects with experiential learning in instructional gardens, kitchen classrooms and the school lunch room to awaken the senses and encourage awareness and appreciation of the values of nourishment, community and stewardship of the land. As part of the learning experience, we need to build a curriculum that will provide all students with delicious, healthy, seasonal meals made from local, sustainably grown ingredients. As part of this curriculum, students are involved in activities that include growing, preparing, serving and enjoying food with adults and peers.

So it’s possible. It is happening. Now if every school had a lunch program that served its students only local products that had been sustainably farmed, imagine what it would mean for agriculture. Today, something like 20% of the population of the United States is in school. If all these students were eating lunch together, consuming local, organic food, agriculture would change overnight to meet the demand. Our domestic food culture would change as well, as people again grew up learning how to cook affordable, wholesome, and delicious food.

We must respond to the growing child obesity problem by bringing real food, nutritious food, back into the schools and into the curriculum. We must create new incentives for educators to integrate real food into the lives of their students.

What we’re calling for is a revolution in public education – a “Slow School”. Alice Waters said it best:

When the hearts and minds of children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.

Chef Ann is also the author of In Mother’s Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes (2005); Bitter Harvest : A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Danger in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (2000), a glimpse into food safety and the dangers of every day meals, and A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Professional Chefs (1998).

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