Lunch lady with a mission: getting kids to eat healthy
Ann Cooper is not your typical lunch lady. She is more likely to wear a chef's toque than a hairnet and her roasted chicken and potatoes bear no resemblance to nuggets and Tater Tots. The former chef, who spent much of her 30-plus-year career working in white-tablecloth restaurants and catering for celebrities, is now best known as the "Lunch Lady" in Berkeley, Calif., schools. In cafeterias there she has tossed out fried, frozen, and sugary foods and replaced them with fresh, seasonal, and mostly organic meals.Skip to next paragraph
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Driven to reform school lunches as concerns grow over childhood obesity and diabetes, Ms. Cooper gets up at 3:30 each morning to begin cooking school lunches by 5 a.m. Somehow, she also eked out time recently to write "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children," which offers inspiration, guidance, and recipes to those wishing to duplicate her efforts in their own school districts.
Cooper is motivated by more than alarming health reports. She believes there's a direct correlation between what kids eat and how they perform at school, that knowledge of food is integral to one's education, and that all children deserve delicious and nutritious meals. Most of all, she says: "I want to change children's relationship to food." Given that kids are bombarded daily by persuasive ads selling them on a diet of fries, chips, and soda; that fast food is often part of a child's reward; and that families are so time-strapped they clamor for convenience foods, hers seems quite a lofty goal.
But she has gotten off to an impressive start. When she began working as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) in the fall of 2005, about 95 percent of the cafeteria food was processed. Today, 95 percent is made from scratch. BUSD encompasses 16 schools and about 9,000 students, roughly 4,500 of whom buy lunch at school each day. That number has been growing recently, but Cooper doesn't always get high-fives for her efforts.
"I have received hate mail," she says. "Kids speak up if they don't like something." She recalls a group of fifth-graders who told her: "Ms. Cooper, we hate your food. We're going on a hunger strike." Their biggest complaint was her recipe for grilled-cheese sandwiches, which used fresh-baked, whole-wheat bread and quality cheddar cheese. Cooper invited these students into the kitchen to learn how to make bread and taste cheeses other than the day-glo-orange variety they craved. Eventually, they came around, and by the following year, they told the incoming group of fifth graders: " 'You are so lucky. We fixed all the food here for you.' "
Cooper is familiar with the struggles of similar healthy-lunch campaigns, such as that of Jamie Oliver in Britain, where parents have smuggled hamburgers through school-yard fences to their children who refused to eat his freshly made meals. But for the most part, says Cooper, Berkeley parents have been supportive.
High schoolers are her toughest sell, says Cooper. Berkeley High School allows students to leave campus during lunch, and many of them head for the nearby strip of fast-food joints. But some stay to enjoy Cooper's menu.
"The salad bar is becoming more popular," says Mateo Aceves, a senior, who raves about the choices of fresh ingredients, including a variety of greens, beets, and feta cheese in a phone interview. Freshman Ilana Wexler puts it this way: "I don't care if it's not cool among freshmen to eat from the salad bar – if only because they want to leave school. I love it."
Perhaps Mateo and Ilana are especially enthusiastic since they have worked in the garden where the salad-bar vegetables are grown. As students at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, they participated in the nationally acclaimed "Edible Schoolyard," where students grow and cook the food served in their cafeteria. The program was started in 1995 by Alice Waters, California cuisine pioneer and owner of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.
"Somehow," says Ilana of her middle school experience, "the food tasted better just knowing that our hands were involved in making it. I felt such a sense of pride."