School Lunch Revolutionary: Chef Ann Cooper

Part two in a special four-part NVL series looking at the movers and shakers who are taking on those nasty school lunches most of our kids are served, and bringing some surprising changes to the table.

Last week you learned of Sarah Wu, whose blog about eating the cafeteria food at the school where she was teaching caught the attention of Jamie Oliver and the Chicago school board.

This week meet Ann Cooper, a gourmet chef who went from not caring what kids ate to becoming one of the noisiest healthy school lunch advocates on the scene.

From White Tablecloths to Plastic Trays

Cooper is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, and a veteran white-tablecloth chef, so one might wonder what brought her to fight for nutritious school lunches for kids.

"I'm about as unlikely a candidate to be a school food advocate as you could find," Chef Cooper says. "I never knew what kids ate and never cared what they ate. I was a white-tablecloth 'celebrity chef.' The worst thing that could happen was on a Saturday night the host would come running in and say, 'Chef, Chef, we have screaming children on table 19. What should we do?' And I'd be likely to say, 'What are they doing in my restaurant? Don't they know better?'"

The story of how Cooper became involved in children's nutrition actually began before she had the idea to do so. In 2000, Cooper published a book entitled Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do about It. The book was the culmination of her own investigation into modern food processing and the benefits of locally and sustainably grown food, to which she had committed herself.

After she had completed the book, but before it was released, she got an unexpected phone call from Ross School in East Hampton, New York, and was asked to apply for the job of Executive Chef and Director of Wellness and Nutrition. Her response was, at first, less than enthusiastic. "I literally looked at the phone and said, 'What do you want? You've got to be kidding!'" Cooper relates. "But they said, 'Come down and see what we're doing.'"

Cooper did go over to the school, where she met with Courtney Ross, the school's founder and widow of Steve Ross, former CEO of Time Warner. One of Ms. Ross's firm missions was to change the way American children were fed, and one of her core values was wellness. In listening to her, Cooper became enamored with the idea and decided it was time to make a difference.

"If you're in fine dining, you're feeding the upper 5 or 10 percent of the financial demographic of the world," she says. "I got to wondering why it was that everybody didn't get this great food. I decided to do as a number of my colleagues had done in different ways and follow my heart. In the end I said to myself, 'Okay, I'm going to drop out. I'm done being a celebrity chef and I'm going to be a lunch lady.' That was in 1999 and it's been more than a decade now."

Taking It to the Parents and the Government

Over the next 10 years, Cooper's activity base widened as she vigilantly fought for school lunches for children. She has taken her message far and wide and has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek and Time magazine, as well as having a healthy list of television and major conference appearances. In 2006, Cooper (along with co-author Lisa Holmes) published an award-winning book entitled Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.

Now, with a broad network of parents and food activists, Cooper has established a remarkable website called Chef Ann Cooper: Renegade Lunch Lady.

Why, one might reasonably ask, would serving healthy and nutritious food to children be considered "renegade"?

Cooper laughs in response and says, "What is that? What is it about serving fresh broccoli that would be seen as renegade? You know, it's because it sort of flies in the face of agribusiness. It flies in the face of Kraft and the American Beverage Association and, frankly, in the face of the National Dairy Council with their chocolate milk campaign. There is so much money to be made in these 5.4 billion lunches we're serving every year that big business stands to lose money if we serve healthy food."

A separate site, The Lunch Box, is designed to directly assist schools in making their meals more nutritious. "After working on the project for some time, I got a planning grant from Kellogg Foundation, and then subsequent to that I started my own foundation and decided to build this web portal TheLunchBox.org," Cooper says. "In 2010, I partnered with Whole Foods Market and four other foundations, and we raised a million dollars in 100 days. Our objective is to put out there in the public domain, free of charge, all the tools, resources, menus and recipes that a school district would need in order to change their food. In that way we're taking away some of their roadblocks."

Cooper concludes with a request for parents everywhere. "I would hope that all the readers would check out TheLunchBox.org and use it as a tool to help their schools change, because schools need all the help they can get. We need public/private partnerships; we need parents helping; and I know The Lunch Box is also one more tool to help schools overcome the barriers to their being able to make the positive changes our children all need."