When Ann Cooper took a job as a breakfast cook to support her ski bum lifestyle, it was the beginning of her career as a chef and her mission to overhaul the way we feed our kids in school. She went on to write four books, including one that examines how we’ve allowed corporations to own our food supply and why our school lunch programs are so poor. With her ballsy, in-your-face style, Ann is not afraid to call out the big agribusinesses that are contributing to the problem and to push the USDA to higher standards. After overhauling the school lunch programs in Berkeley, Harlem, and now Boulder, Ann is building a platform to work at the national level and crusade for what she sees as a social justice issue.
Ann Cooper at school salad bar, photo by Craig Lee
Find an expanded interview with Ann Cooper in my new book Field Trip:Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my new book here.
This mission you’re on is rooted in what you refer to as a social justice issue. For those who don’t know your work, how would you describe this mission?
Changing the way we feed our children. It’s really about making sure every kid in every school across the country gets healthy food everyday.
The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] says that among children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African-Americans and Hispanics are going to have diabetes in their lifetime, many before they graduate high school. The result of which will be that this generation will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents. So this is totally a social justice issue. You know, the kids who need the help the most are getting the worst food.
There are 1.1 million hungry children in America everyday, and it really should be a birthright in our country that no child is hungry in school. And that the food that our kids eat is delicious and healthy everyday. You know, hungry kids can’t think, malnourished kids can’t learn. And in our country, that just needs to stop. Every kid, every day, should have healthy food in school.
A good school lunch
Did your interest in cooking begin as a child, and how did you get on this career path to begin with?
By accident, and not as a child. I never graduated high school, and when I thought my career choice was ski bum, I hitchhiked out to Telluride, Colorado. I didn’t have any money and needed a job, and I talked my way into a breakfast cook position and found I really loved cooking. And I eventually went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and then became a chef.
And your interest in reforming school lunch programs?
Also really by accident. I’ve written four books, and my second is Bitter Harvest. And in Bitter Harvest, I really started exploring why food makes us sick, who owns our food supplies, how food supplies can be owned. And in the late ’90s, I’d been asked to become the executive chef of the Ross School in New York, and originally I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ And eventually I thought, ‘Wow, maybe it’s a way to give back and make a change.’ So that’s how I got involved.
The cover of Bitter Harvest, by Ann Cooper
I remember very clearly as a child being told by my mother that certain things I wanted were not in season, but now we can buy anything we want year-round. How did we become so disconnected not only from the seasons but also from locally grown food?
It came about after World War II. That was the beginning of it, because it was really the green revolution. Industrial agriculture got its start in the war — nitrogen was used in bombs and eventually became fertilizers; jeeps were used in the war, and they eventually became trucks. And that’s also the first time we had refrigeration and all that stuff. And all this stuff that came into being — this big technological boom — made having food anytime we wanted it, anywhere we wanted it, possible. And America embraced it.
You’ve revamped the school lunch programs in Berkeley, Harlem and now Boulder, Colorado. Have these communities embraced these changes in the same way, and what are your top challenges?
There’s five major challenges: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. Food: where are you going to get it? Finances: how are you going to pay for it? Facilities: where are you going to store it and cook it? Human resources: how do you actually get people trained to actually cook it? And, finally, how do you get the kids to eat it? — the marketing component.
I think that Berkeley has totally embraced it, I think that Harlem and the New York projects have totally embraced it. Boulder is still pretty new — I’ve only been here since July.
Kids involved in gardening, image from thelunchbox.org
How are you determining which communities to go to next?
I don’t think I’m going to do another school district. I mean, never say never, but at this point I really want to work on the national level.
Do you see your website thelunchbox.org being your mechanism for doing that?
I don’t have a plan yet, and I’ve got at least a couple more years in Boulder. But I think certainly one of the plans would be thelunchbox.org, and then there would potentially be other ways I could work at the national level.
The following video clip shows Ann’s work in schools in Harlem, New York City, and her launch of her site thelunchbox.org:
Promise PSA from Williams Media Group on Vimeo.
What would you like to see happen from a public policy standpoint, if you could wave a wand?
I’d like to see an extra $1.00 toward the national school lunch program, designated to fresh food, vegetables, whole grains, and with the priority on regional procurement. And I think universal meals would be amazing — that certainly should happen, but I don’t think we’re there yet.
Improving our school lunches and food culture is not just a matter of creating better habits, but also going up against big agribusinesses who are so aggressive in their tactics. How optimistic do you feel about defeating this Goliath that is so clearly part of the problem?
Part of the problem is the commodity food program, for sure. It’s going to take little wins — I don’t think there’s going to be one big win. I think it’s going to be consistent little wins. You know, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the big guys, but I think that over time the smaller guys will have a bigger percentage of it.
How would you like to see the USDA revamp what they’re doing?
I think they need to allocate more funding, but more funding isn’t enough with the guidelines being so low — the nutritional guidelines with the transfats and the high-fructose corn syrup, the chicken nuggets, the tater tots, the chocolate milk, canned fruit cocktail, popsicles, pop tarts and corn dogs. We have to raise money, but we have to raise the guidelines, and we have to clean up the commodities program.
You also hope to make education a part of this process so that kids understand the synergy between the food they eat, their own health, and the environment. Can you give me a couple of examples of how you’re getting this message across and how the kids are responding?
I think, as you can imagine, some kids really like it, some kids don’t. Not every kid likes everything, and nobody likes change. So there are some challenges, and I think it takes time. I think the lesson from Berkeley is that it just takes time. Once the kids really understand what’s going on, and once they have a chance to get used to it, it really works. And, really, it’s ten years to make the change. If you start with the little kids, by the time they get to high school, you’re not fighting with them all the time. In the beginning, the high school kids don’t like it, but, you know, you’ve just got to do it.
Kids involved in cooking, image from thelunchbox.org
You’re part of a larger movement — kind of a groundswell really — with others such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Jamie Oliver also involved in this cause. Is there some forum, association, or other mechanism by which you’re all able to support each other in this cause?
There really isn’t. There’s a lot of disparate noise out there in the movement at this point. Although the website I’m building I hope can be a forum for a lot of it, to try to get a place where you can get to and understand what everyone working on these issues is actually working on. But right now it’s really disparate.
You must naturally draw comparisons between U.S. food culture and that of France and other countries. Does the magnitude of the work that needs to be done here ever overwhelm you?
I don’t get overwhelmed. I think that in parts of France and in Rome specifically, they’ve done a really good job. And I’ve been over to France and to Rome to look at their programs, and they just have a really different sensibility around the food they serve kids.
The cover of Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper
For parents who read this, what are some the biggest things they can do to help support your mission?
Well, there’s a couple of things. From a school perspective, find out what your school’s wellness policy is. Check it out, and then go eat lunch at the school. The school board holds all of the resources, so find out what the wellness policy is. And then go to the school board with like-minded parents and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t good enough.’
And from the home perspective, turn off the TV, and shop, cook, garden with your kids. And really make meals part of the family life — and that doesn’t mean driving through McDonald’s and eating in the car. Socialization is at the table — sit down at the table, turn off all the blue screens, and talk with your kids and eat with your kids and make food something important.
Who are some of your sponsors or sources of support?
We’ve had a lot of support from foundations — the Kellogg’s Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations, the Colorado Health Foundation, The Children’s Health Foundation, The Compton Family Foundation — we’ve had a lot of foundation support. But nationally we’ve also had a lot of support from Whole Foods – they’ve been really wonderful helping us do this work and helping get the word out.
When you’re not busy going balls-out on this mission, what are some of your favorite things in life?
Well, I just got back from trekking in Nepal for three weeks, and that was fun. I’m very into the outdoors and sports, which is part of the reason I live in Colorado now. I’m an avid reader. And I’ve written four books, and I’m sure there’s at least one or two more in my future!
For a more in-depth look at Ann’s work and message, here is her presentation at TED:
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