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"Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper bellies up to the salad bar

Ann Cooper is a busy lunch lady -- even if she's not the hairnet-wearing stereotype, standing behind the hot-lunch line plopping down scoops of canned green beans and powdered mashed potatoes. In fact, she's been trying for years to make sure those green beans are fresh (even local!) and the mashed potatoes come from actual potatoes.

Cooper has been overseeing the Boulder Valley School District's renovation of its school food program for close to two years -- earning the label "Renegade Lunch Lady" in the process -- and now the former fine-dining chef is out to reform the nation's eating habits.

Cooper is part of the just-announced Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools, a grassroots initiative working with the Let's Move! project pushed by Michelle Obama. Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools has a goal of placing salad bars in over 6,000 schools, starting with the one it put into Riverside Elementary School in Miami on November 22.

Sarah Palin has already engaged Michelle Obama in a public debate over Let's Move!, and Palin singled out Cooper's program in particular, calling it part of the "nanny-state."

"Palin is ridiculous on this issue," Cooper responds. "The parents are obviously responsible for the kids' food, but what about when the kids are at school? Then government has to be responsible." Still, the Renegade Lunch Lady says she considers Palin's criticism a badge of honor, and proof that she's on the right track.

This is Cooper's second big salad-bar push. The Great American Salad Bar Project, held in conjunction with Whole Foods, raised over $1.4 million in seven weeks this summer. The money will go toward putting salad bars in approximately 550 more schools around the country. There "are so many good things about salad bars," she says. "The kids get a choice and, when done well, fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains." More important, she notes, salad bars "really do give us the ability to teach kids about food."

She's been doing a lot of teaching in Boulder, where she's on a year-to-year contract and plans to stay at least through 2011. "We now have five regional kitchens," explains Cooper. "The schools are using no high fructose corn syrup and no trans fats. There is organic milk, whole grains and a salad bar in every school now."

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