Chef Ann Cooper Explains School Lunch

Chef Ann Cooper Explains School Lunch 

The world's most famous school lunch lady, Chef Ann Cooper, does not pull her punches. In the April 16th episode of Ovation Network's new season of In Search of Food (repeating April 21st), host and award-winning chef Scott Pampuch heads to Boulder, Colorado, where Chef Ann runs the school meals program for Boulder Valley School District. Early on in the episode, Chef Ann heatedly tells us, “We need to live in a world where we're not spending more on our daily coffee than on school lunch.”

Can I get an “Amen”? Pampuch is in Boulder to see if he can meet a challenge Chef Ann meets every day - to prepare and serve in just 4 hours a healthy nutritious lunch, using a mix of government commodities and locally sourced food, and meeting all USDA program requirements, while spending just $1.15 per meal for the food. I won't spoil the episode by telling you whether he succeeds, but I can share that both Pampuch and Cooper express frustration with the way school meal programs are forced to operate.

What I liked best about the show is that it makes its points about the shortcomings of the US school lunch program without resorting to stunts, or sensationalizing the issue. All of the food costs are displayed clearly onscreen near the end. The whole thing feels more like reality than reality TV.

I've known Chef Ann, who calls herself the "renegade lunch lady", since her days revamping the school meal program in Berkeley, and always enjoy our conversations, especially as her opinions are so often enlivened by the use of four letter words, and never more so than when she is discussing the challenges of trying to improve school food. She graciously agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Q -What is the biggest problem with school meals today?

A - I’m not sure I can pick just one, but here are a top few: All the paperwork that surrounds the system; if we had universal meals and just fed every hungry child every day our jobs would be easier and kids would be healthier. The plethora of advertising that makes junk food "cool" food, which plays into competitive foods and the stigma of the “haves” and “have-nots” (kids with and without money.) Processed foods in all its forms. Lack of facilities – we need real cooking kitchens! Training the team to cook from scratch.

Q - What is the biggest barrier to better school meals?

A - More funding and resources would help to overcome all of the issues I just listed.

Q - What has been your biggest challenge in Boulder?

A - Participation! Getting more kids to eat; we had some parents who felt like we weren’t organic and healthy enough, and others who were unhappy that we took away the chicken nuggets and chocolate milk.

Q - What advice would you give to other school districts wanting to do what you have done?

A - To make sustainable systemic change, you need the support of the entire community. Administrators, parents, advocates as well as the local government. So the answer is building a strong network and coalition that can truly work through the issues, which may take years.

Q - Would you ever consider coming to SF to run the meal program here?

A - There has been so much wonderful work done in SF to bring healthier food to the students. From the SFUSD Student Nutrition Services Director [Ed Wilkins] to members of the community, advocates and even members of the government – it’s amazing to see how far the department has come. I’m not in the job market, but I would be honored to work with so many people who have worked so hard for the health of their children.

Q - You are known for your salty language; was there ever a time during the filming of this show when you lapsed into profanity?

A - I learned while in Berkeley that being in schools meant that I had to clean up my “kitchen mouth.” I was able to keep it together, at least whenever there was a camera around. That being said, working in school food is extremely frustrating; from lack of funding to government regulations to how hard it is to give our children the most basic thing - healthy food - that I really should be cussing! It would be appropriate.

Q - Finally, is there anything else you want viewers of this show to know?

A - I guess I would close by saying that the reason I get up every day and do this work, is that it ought to be a birthright in our country that no child is hungry in school, and that every child every day has healthy, delicious, nutritious food in schools. That’s the world I want to live in and the one I hope all of you want as well!

The "Boulder" episode of "In Search of Food" will air on the west coast at 11:00 AM (2:00PM on the east coast) on Saturday April 21st, on the Ovation Network; in San Francisco it is on Comcast channel 270.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.