Sunday, May 23, 2010
Chef Ann Cooper: Watching Her Peas and Q’s
Life was good for Chef Ann Cooper. Her Vermont restaurant was a success. She just published her second book. Then the call came. A local public school system wanted her to take over the school lunch program. “Originally I was like, ‘What me lunch lady?’I said no.”
But then she started to think about it. In her book, Bitter Harvest, she looked at why so many foods were making children sick. Through her research, she found that processed foods were causing obesity and other health conditions. When the Ross School in Harlem called again, she decided there was more she could do. “I got over myself and I said maybe this was the right way to make a difference. I eventually went to the school and that was the beginning of all of this.”
Cooper believes that if it’s going to make children healthier, the food service industry that cranks out school lunches needs to get some fresh ideas. And who better to lead the change is someone who knows her way around the back of a kitchen.
Cooper’s culinary expertise isn’t her only qualification as the leader of the movement to reform school lunches. She’s well versed in the gift of gab after having a long list of prominent media appearances on her resume. She’s been a guest on NPR, on television shows from CNN to the computer broadcasted TED talks. Her reputation arose when she became the prominent figure doing appearances on local and national television shows.
She was introduced to a Gen. X audience when she appeared on a Daily Show skit, where she demonstrated her ability to deliver a message while poking fun at herself.
Cooper operates on a level of directness that is immediately apparent and central to what people like about her upon first interaction. But she says this has hurt her as much as it has helped her. “If you want to change the world, then the world is going to want to know who you are,” said Cooper, “I think my directness, passion and what I’m willing to say has elevated me beyond what otherwise might have happened.”
Like when Cooper said, “chocolate milk is a soft drink in drag,” it ended up in Time Magazine and New York Times. That curt comment angered a lot of people. “I got a lot of nasty death threat e-mails. I think when you are outspoken and passionate about a lot of causes you have a lot of people who align themselves with you and just as many people who will come out against you.”
Beginnings in conscientious cooking
Popular restaurant entrees are usually not the healthiest fare, but Cooper whose career serving nutritious foods was started while working at Putnam Inn in Vermont. She landed a job where she cultivated her technique by serving freshly prepared foods to her patron’s tastes. Randi Ziter, Putnam Inn’s innkeeper-ess remembers Ann being passionate and focused. “Ann came to be more and more refined in a focus on the wholesome integrity of fresh product, conscientiously produced, from local and known neighboring farms,” said Ziter. “This was a national and international food movement in an embryonic stage, of which The Putney Inn came to be in the forefront and a leader in a relatively small, agricultural State.”
Eventually she left the rolling green hills of Vermont shortly after the call from Harlem.
The school experience in Harlem provided her with the skills necessary to understand the complex process of becoming a leader of a team working to serve school foods. It helped her to understand kids’ eating habits in a very personal way. “Students are very different than working at a restaurant,” she said. “I learned a ton of stuff. I learned how to work with kids and the real importance of hands on experiential learning through cooking and gardening. I learned how to market to kids.” After learning all she could within the position, she began consulting with other school districts. Eventually she was asked to work as the Director of Nutrition Services for Berkeley Unified School District. “I was working half time in Berkeley and half time in Harlem. Eventually, I became the director in Berkeley,” said Cooper.
Moving from one end of the country to the other end in, Cooper started working on a model of a healthy school lunch program. This included starting school gardens, introducing salad bars at every school, preparing nutritious foods on location.
The program remained, even after Cooper moved on, once again. Her of keeping out chocolate milk, processed foods, trans-fats, refined sugars and flours have proven popular. Like much of her past work, it is done out of her own desire to change an ever growing cycle of unhealthy eating amongst Americans.
Realizing that she understands how to fix a broken system she put all her ideas into a book in 2007, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.
Her latest project is tackling the Boulder, Colorado school system. Since July, 2009, a revolution has been going on. A crew led by a professional chef dressed in black pants and double-breasted jacket work vigorously behind cutting boards while chatting about what needs to be done for the day. As the new Director of Food Services for the Boulder Valley School District, Cooper has perfected the model that she used to make ordinary cafeterias into educational facilities.
National Spokesperson for Healthy Eating
Children don’t have opportunity to choose what they eat at cafeterias. That’s a problem according to Cooper. She believes that choice be a vital part of every child’s nutritional education. Simple principles like that have led some to label her as a “renegade lunch lady.” It’s a catchy title, but she characteristically down plays that, “If you think serving kids fresh vegetables instead of canned peas is being a renegade then yeah, I’m a renegade lunch lady.”
She prefers to see herself as the next generation of lunch lady. She would like to see her pedigree common in the lunchroom, and she would like to see other professional chefs work in schools and focus on feeding children. “I think the combination of many of my experiences from catering parties of 20,000 to doing really multi-unit operation, to being a chef at hotels, including my own restaurant have all culminated in the experience that allows me to be successful in what I do with school lunches,” said Cooper.
Cooper’s ideas are available to anybody on her website lunchbox.org, where she lists recipes and other helpful tips schools across the nation can use to better their lunch programs. “Schools face the same problems-food, finance, facility, human resources and marketing. These are the same problems we are seeing here in Boulder as we’ve seen in Berkeley.” Ms. Cooper has been developing her website with the goal of helping school districts all across the country make changes. “It has a lot of tools and will continue to have more tools that will help schools.”
The USDA has appointed Cooper to help revise the National School Lunch Program that will be coming out this September. “My big next thing is working on the child nutrition reauthorization and working on a national level to make sure that there are healthy foods for all kids in school.”
When Cooper started as a chef, she never thought she would be advising the government on how to feed millions of children. But she is low key about it, “I don’t really think about child nutrition. I think about people eating good food. I don’t think anyone called me to a lunch lady. I do think a lot of what I’ve done previously has allowed me to work and be successful at it.”