If “school cafeteria” conjures memories of steam tables, mystery meat and that smell, you haven’t eaten in Ann Cooper’s cafeterias. She’s taken on school lunches from East Hampton, N.Y., to Berkeley, Calif., and won. And in the process, she’s promoted the fact that the one-two punch of home eating habits and school lunch policy can have a lifelong impact on our kids’ health.
Her road to becoming the Renegade Lunch Lady began with getting kicked out of high school and hitchhiking to Telluride, Colo., to be a ski bum. She soon talked her way into a paying job—breakfast cook. From there, she went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America and cook for hotels, cruise ships and Vermont’s Putney Inn. Then came the job offer that changed her career. She got a call from the Ross School in East Hampton to serve as executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition.
“At first, I said no way, but then I thought it was a way to make a difference,” says Cooper.
Make a difference, she did. Because of her success at the Ross School, she was invited to overhaul the food at public school cafeterias in New York City, Harlem and Bridgehampton, N.Y., and in Berkeley, Calif., improve meals at 16 public schools serving more than 9,000 students. At each school, she has introduced healthful, fresh, organic lunches and changed the way children eat. And she leveraged the power kids have to change their families’ habits.
“We wear seat belts and don’t smoke because it was marketed to [us as] kids. They learned it in school. At the Ross School, we know that 80 percent of the kids’ families changed the way they cooked at home because of the way the food changed in the school,” Cooper explains.
Cooper’s book, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (coauthored with Lisa M. Holmes) is all about strategies to change the way you feed your children. Cooper warns, though, that it can’t be a do-as-I-say situation.
“As adults and advocates and caregivers, we have to walk the walk. We have to lead by example,” she explains. If you eat badly and don’t get enough exercise, chances are good that your kids will follow suit. Home food is only half the battle, though. School food is the other half, and Lunch Lessons has suggestions for getting involved in local programs and governmental policy-making. Old-fashioned grassroots activism can make a difference.
“All schools have to develop wellness policies, and parents should get involved in the process,” says Cooper. “Make sure your congressman or woman knows how important these issues are.” For more information about how you can make a difference or to learn more about Ann’s work, check out her blog at chefann.com/blog/.
—By Tamar Haspel, a food writer in Marstens Mills, Mass.