Smarter School Lunches

Healthy, local food for all kids? "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper is starting a revolution in school cafeterias.
Ann Cooper

Ann Cooper believes in smarter school lunches.

Photo by Stephen Collector

School lunches often get low marks when it comes to flavor and nutrition. But chef, author, and activist Ann Cooper is working hard to change all that.

She’s currently handing out a lot of E’s—not for Excellence but for the Elimination of highly processed foods, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugars, and flours, chemicals, dyes, and food additives. Cooper is on a mission to give students access to regional fresh, whole, and healthy foods.

Often referred to as the “Renegade Lunch Lady” for her determination to change the way U.S. school systems think about food, Cooper has had a lengthy career as a chef and school food advocate. She’s helped transform school lunch programs in New York (East Hampton, Harlem, and Bridgehampton) and California (Berkeley). Last July, she moved to a system three times Berkeley’s size: the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Boulder, Colorado, home to 28,000 students and 55 schools.

Cooper’s goal is to create lunches that are healthy and habit-forming; at school, she hopes students will learn lifelong eating habits along with basic subjects such as reading, math, and science.

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“The CDC has said that of the children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African Americans and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetime—many before they graduate high school,” Cooper says. Some studies indicate that children born in 2000 may die at a younger age than their parents because of the food they eat. “The bottom line,” she says, “is we’re killing our kids with food.”

But what does it take to start a revolution in school cafeterias? In Boulder, Cooper began by studying the kind of equipment that was available in school kitchens, how much training the staff had, the foods that could be purchased and prepared. Then, she says, “We wrote menus for the whole year.”

Boulder Valley schools now offer students breakfasts and buffet-style lunches with salad bars, fresh produce, and locally produced organic milk. The district places a high priority on purchasing regionally produced products, on cooking fresh food rather than reheating frozen processed food, and on making food that kids like. “Instead of chicken nuggets, there is roast chicken,” Cooper says. “One day a week there is always some kind of fresh pasta and one day a week there is always some kind of Mexican food.” Food items like hamburgers and hotdogs are served only about once a month.

Along with milk, breads and cereals are organic, but the district doesn’t have the budget to serve only organic food. “By and large, on $2.75 [per student], there’s not going to be a lot that’s organic,” Cooper says.

Cost is a critical factor when it comes to school lunch reform. In its online blog, the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington D.C., commented that at first, “the changes all sound sensible enough: setting calorie limits for meals, increasing the amount of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables in school meals, and reducing fat and sodium. But here’s the clincher,” it warned: “the recommendations would cost money!”

Boulder students

Before taking on nutrition in school lunches, Ann Cooper wrote Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It.

Photo by Ellen Mahoney

But for Cooper and the Boulder Valley School Board, it’s a worthwhile investment in the community’s long-term health. Helayne Jones, who, as a longtime member of the school board was instrumental in hiring Cooper, says she’s “proud of us as a school district for the gift we’re giving our children.” Boulder developed the School Food Project, a public-private task force of community businesses, nonprofits, activists, and district officials, to help raise money.

“We’ve raised well over $400,000 so far for staff training and capital improvements to our kitchens,” says Leslie Stafford, chief financial officer for BVSD. Nearly half of the $400,000 was used to purchase new equipment to support the new “real food” menus. “It is more expensive on day one to move to healthier food, but our business plan really shows we will be able to recoup whatever investments we’ve had to make,” Jones says.

The schools’ three-year rollout plan includes adding kitchen space gradually so more cooking can be done from scratch. Initial costs also included professional training development for more than 150 BVSD nutrition services personnel, including everything from culinary skills and recipe development to safe food handling.

To succeed, the school lunches need to be attractive to kids. Of Boulder’s 28,000 students, 8,000 are buying lunch and 2,000 are buying breakfast. “Early on we’ve seen an even greater increase than we expected in the number of kids who want to eat the food in school,” Jones says. But, as Cooper pointed out in a letter to parents, “The more students who eat meals at school, the more financially viable the program becomes.”

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Although many of the students like the dietary changes, others are less than happy about the adjustment. “The reality is there are going to be kids who are going to be upset because they can’t eat junk during the school day,” Jones says. “But I really do believe there is a connection between what we put into our bodies and how our brains work. And I believe that healthy food for a child during the school day ends up in resulting in increased student achievement.”

Don Stensrud, principal of Fairview High School in Boulder, says the new lunch program has many pluses. “Number one, you look at the food from an aesthetic viewpoint and it just looks better. You can get a piece of real, baked chicken that doesn’t look like it fell off some processed chicken cart.”

All Boulder schools also now have a salad bar—a popular feature with teachers who used to bring their own lunches, Jones says. “There’s this whole new modeling going on in the cafeteria where teachers are filling up a plate at a salad bar.”

The district is working to help students engage more directly with the food they eat. It has developed colorful yearly calendars for different school levels, which include seasonal, kid-friendly recipes, a schedule of school menus, and fun food facts.

Berkeley farm field trip

Part of the Berkeley school district's new approach is to help students understand where their food comes from.

Photo by Stephen Collector

The schools are also incorporating produce from local farmers in their menus. “We are very blessed in Colorado to have a strong vibrant farm community,” Jones says. “ We have had tremendous support already from the local farmers around the district, and I think that is going to be an amazing partnership going forward.”

Some of the schools are bringing food production even closer, growing vegetable gardens on schoolyards. “Kids are seeing vegetables they’ve probably never seen before and understanding the food process, learning about nutrition, growing vegetables, and eating the salad. And, that’s bringing science to life for kids,” Jones says. “I think the overall message for this work is that kids are responsible for their health and their bodies, and what they put into their bodies really makes a difference for the rest of their lives.”

For Jones, who first became interested in school nutrition when her son’s middle school physical education teachers were selling Ding Dongs for a fundraiser, the new programs represent an enormous change in the way the Boulder community thinks about kids, food, and nutrition.

“A lot of people chuckled when I raised the issue of school food when I ran for election [to the school board],” she said. “People just seemed to accept that—‘Well, of course school food is going to be terrible.’ My view was that we shouldn’t accept that, especially for our children who are in poverty.” For many children in Boulder, the meals they get at school could be the only opportunity they have during the day to eat nutritious food.

While developing the Boulder program, Cooper has continued traveling to Washington D.C. to help advocate for improved national school lunch programs.

Like Jones, she sees school lunch programs as a social justice issue. “Hungry kids can’t think and malnourished kids can’t learn and that really is not OK in America today,” Cooper says. “We just really have to fix it.”

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