Now serving: Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, who's taking on the Boulder Valley School District. Cooper is known nationally as an advocate for healthier school lunches for children, and has already created greatly improved nutritional meal programs in New York and at the Berkeley Unified School District in California.
I recently spoke with her about what it takes to break the old stereotypes and convince kids to eat healthy.
Westword (Tyler Nemkov): So, how is the Boulder conversion going?
Ann Cooper: It's just in its infancy phase. We were hired in January to consult for just six months, and right now we are looking at budgets and we are looking at procurement. Basically, that is all that is happening right now, but this is just baby steps. We won't start full time until next school year.
WW: How long are you involved in the process?
AC: We'll see. It's up to the school districts. I'm thinking two to three years.
WW: Is that how long you were at Berkeley?
AC: Yes, and Harlem. Just a couple years.
WW: Has the economy changed everything?
AC: Not so far, but I'm sure it will somehow.
WW: Will it have an effect in how long you're here?
AC: I don't really think so. I hope I'm not being naive, but I just don't think it will be an issue.
WW: So then what kind of effect will it have on the final outcome?
AC: It will make things more challenging and maybe slower, but eventually it will all happen.
WW: And what does 'it' mean? What's the ideal goal with all this?
AC: Feeding all the students in the district with the healthiest foods possible, made from scratch, made from central locations and procured as local as possible.
WW: You've redone a school in Harlem and Berkeley's school district. How are they doing since you've left?
AC: They are sustainable. I'm still at Berkeley half-time, but I left the Ross School in 2004 and so five years later they're doing great. The person who has taken over for me as executive chef is also working for my consulting business. We check on them often. If it's done right, it will be sustainable.
WW: Why did you choose Boulder as your next location?
AC: They chose me. They approached me and we spent a lot of time talking and after a while I felt like it would be a good fit.
WW: Does that mean you get a lot of offers from other schools?
AC: It does, but the reason I went with Boulder is that they're really at a high level of readiness. The superintendent, the school board and the community are all ready to make change.
WW: I picture Harlem and Berkeley and they seem like direct opposites, but is the process the same?
AC: Well, first off, the Ross School was just one school. It was a well-funded charter school that really already believed in these things, so again, the reason it worked was because the head of the school really believed in this issue. I think that when you have a high level of readiness, that's how it happens.
WW: So you're trying to reform the way people are eating, but it seems like you're not doing it person-by-person, it seems like you're trying to effect the people up top to do it.
AC: Not exactly. They have to want to do it. When they believe it and want to do it, then you bring someone in who knows how. They secure the resources, whether it's human or financial resources.
WW: How do you think this can become a bigger issue?
AC: It's about exposure, about everything we're doing now. I'm getting a lot of e-mails coming in from school districts who want to do something about school food in America. I think my work made a difference for that.
WW: Have you seen greater acceptance or appreciation in Boulder?
AC: Well, the Boulder Valley School District is not just Boulder. They are extremely varied demographically, and from a socioeconomic as well as a political level, not everyone is going to agree on what change looks like.
WW: Is anyone resisting yet?
AC: Not yet, but we'll see. No one has had to do anything yet. When it starts costing somebody money, then we'll see. But I heard this when I was at Berkeley, people were saying, "That can only be done in Berkeley" and now people are saying, "This can only be done in Boulder." But it's all different.
WW: Do you think places like Boulder or Berkeley are easier, then?
AC: What makes it easy or not is not where it is. It's really about the superintendent, the school board and the community getting behind it. And that could happen in Harlem and then it can happen in Berkeley. And one of my very good friends did something similar in a small district in Traverse City, Michigan. So it doesn't matter as long as they're ready, they can make it happen.
WW: What is at the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
AC: The health and well-being of our children. Because of what they're being fed, they are getting sick. Now 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese and the CDC says that if we don't turn it around, every man, woman and child in our country will be obese by 2040. It will look like Wall-E.
WW: So is something lost in translation then?
AC: It's not that it's lost, it's just that there's so much money in this. Big business spends $20 billion each year marketing non-nutrient foods to kids. It's like the dangers of smoking cigarettes. How many people have to die? There is such irrefutable evidence that smoking is gonna kill you, but a lot of people smoke. I think it's the same.
There are irrefutable resources saying that you have to eat healthily if you want to live a long life, but people don't. There are irrefutable resources saying methamphetamines are going to kill you, yet people do it every day. So I think it's the same thing.
WW: Are your goals a little-pie-in-the-sky, or do you think this can really be done nationally? What is your ultimate goal?
AC: Well, if I was queen of the world, if I was queen of this school-food world, we would serve universal breakfast, lunch and snacks. They would be healthy and delicious and it would be procured regionally. That's what the end goal is. I may not live to see it, but I can hope.
WW: Speaking of hope, what do you think of Obama's place in all of this? What is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's role?
AC: I'm very optimistic that this is a moment in time that we really can make a difference. Because the Obama administration seems to be willing to take on the status quo, they really seem to be taking on the whole food thing. By bringing in Sam Kass [the Obama's personal chef in Chicago] and by planting a garden, I think they are doing a lot of the right stuff, so I'm very hopeful.
As for Vilsack, I was really down on him to be honest. He brought GMO's to the world. But whether that was political and these are his true colors or the other way around, he seems to have a different tune. He says he has changed his life over some health scares. He says he runs everyday and he makes noise like he cares about food. Now, he's an Iowa farmer at heart, so I don't know. But I'm not coming out against him, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. I think Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary of agriculture is a pretty cool move. If she is working with him and they aren't going head-to-head every minute, then we could see something cool happen.
WW: What can they do? What would you like them all to do?
AC: Well, here are the things they need to do. First, they need to raise the reimbursement rate, the rate that government pays for kids' lunches; it's way too low. And with it the guidelines [the standards set as acceptable school food by the government], need to be raised as well. We need to change the guidelines because right now chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup and popsicles are acceptable.
We need to put money into kitchens because most schools don't have them anymore. We need to put money into training programs because most of the cooks think that chicken nuggets are acceptable food. And we need to market to kids, because the kids in Boulder today are eating Cheetos and if I take them away they will be really bummed, and they'll think I'm the archangel or something. To get kids to go from Cheetos to what we want, we really need the kids to be educated.
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WW: How did all this come about for you, where did the passion come from?
AC: Well, I'm such an unlikely candidate for working with school lunch. My entire career was as a white tablecloth chef and I actually started in Telluride many years ago. I worked in restaurants all around the country and abroad. I wrote a book in the mid-90's called Bitter Harvest, a book about why food makes us sick and who owns the food supplies and what that means. After I had written it, I got a call from the Ross School and they said, "Would you become our executive chef?" and I said, "What, me a lunch lady? Click." I hung up. Then they called back, I got over myself and thought, "This is everything I'm preaching, why wouldn't I go do it?"
I met with them and, this was in 1999, I'd been working in the industry for over twenty years. Eventually I realized this is something that is really cool. I can make a difference. It's been ten years and I don't regret a minute of it. It's the culmination of everything I've ever done.
I feel fortunate to have spent my whole life in the culinary world. My first job was in 1973 as an assistant breakfast cook and now through four books, a consulting company and a foundation, it was always about the food. The culmination of everything else I did was to become a lunch lady. I used to cater for parties of 20,000, so I know about mass production. And I really cared about sustainability, so I know about that and it seems like I came to the right place.