Chef Ann Cooper: ‘Put Healthy Food on Kids’ Plates’

Andrea Barbalich, Photography by Kirsten Boyer

You trained at the Culinary Institute of America and have been a chef at high-profile restaurants. How did you get involved in the school lunch movement? I was working as a chef in East Hampton, New York, and I got a call from a school that wanted me to take over as executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition. The school’s founder wanted healthy eating to be one of the core pillars. I took the job, and the school started to get a lot of attention around the country and the world. Alice Waters, a chef and a pioneer in the local, sustainable food movement, asked me to come to Berkeley, California, to fix the public school food there. I did that, and now I’m doing the same in Boulder, Colorado.

Chef Ann Cooper

What do you see as your mission? To put healthy food on kids’ plates and have them eat it.

Why is this so crucial? The CDC tells us that one out of every three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. The leading cause of non-accidental death in children is cancer. This is the first generation of children who are expected to die at a younger age than their parents, and much of this stems from our diets. We have to take care of our kids.

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by school food professionals as they try to improve their lunches? There are five big ones: food, finance, facilities, human resources, and marketing. How do we pay for the food with so little money? How do we equip our kitchens to cook it? How do we teach people to cook again? And after we do that, how do we get kids to eat the food?

So many schools have made dramatic improvements in their lunch programs, and so many more parents are recognizing the importance of healthy eating. Do you see the tide changing? Yes. We have a long way to go, but I definitely see a change. And it’s happening throughout our society. Chipotle decided to stop serving food made with GMOs. McDonald’s is giving up meat made with antibiotics. So on the marketplace side you’re seeing change. And then on the school food side the parents are demanding change. Districts all across the country are responding and serving better food to kids.

What can parents do to improve their school’s lunches? The first thing a parent should do is go eat lunch with the kids. See what’s being served. Read the school’s wellness policy and see what it says. If the food that’s being served doesn’t mesh with the wellness policy, get like-minded people together and go to the board and say, “You’re not following your own policy. Here’s what I saw.” Or you can say, “The wellness policy isn’t good enough—we want to see healthier food.” You can also try to get a school garden going. Meet with the school food service director and ask how you can help. Above all, make healthy food a core value in your home. Go grocery shopping and cook with your kids. Plant a garden. Turn off the TV and really make sitting down and eating together at the table a priority. If you make it a priority in your family, it will remain with your kids.

What’s your ultimate wish for children in America? That it would be a birthright that every child had access to healthy food every day in school and no child was ever hungry.

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