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.

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."

Many say that involving children in the process of growing and cooking their meals – and learning about food in the classroom – is essential to Cooper's goal of changing their relationship to food. But first one must enlist the support of adults.

Eric Weaver knows all about the significance of social marketing for this cause. Mr. Weaver was part of the original group of Berkeley parents who said "enough" to greasy pizza and canned peaches. About 10 years ago, when he and his colleagues on the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee first proposed their ideas about changing the school menu, they were told, especially by the food service director at the time, that "kids won't eat unless you give them [the garbage] they are used to."

In response, his committee cooked pots of soup, made fresh salad, and bought bread from the best bakery in town and then served the meal to kids – who devoured it with gusto. The school board was convinced. Soon after, a supportive new superintendent came on board, and Alice Waters brought in chef Ann Cooper as the new food service director.

"Ann is a virtuoso chef and had never been a food service director," says Weaver. "So she threw out the whole standard operating procedure and started all over again. She is the essential element to making this happen."

Other school districts can take a page out of "Lunch Lessons," in which Cooper and her coauthor, Lisa Holmes, explain the basics of childhood nutrition and suggest recipes for breakfast, brown-bag lunches, and snacks. They also offer guidance to parents and school workers seeking to bring about program changes.

Most significant, they write, is bringing about change on the national level. Ever since Reagan's presidency, the USDA-approved National School Lunch Program, which was signed into law by President Truman in 1946, has been underfunded, they say. Public school lunches are today subsidized at a rate of $2.42 per child, which includes payroll and benefits (about 60 percent at most schools). In the end, about $1 is spent on school lunches per child. It's no wonder, Cooper says, that school districts buy meals as cheaply as possible, which typically means processed, fast-food choices sold by corporate giants backed by the USDA.

Cooper would like nothing more than to see childhood nutrition and school-lunch subsidies become hot topics on the 2008 presidential trail. Subsidies need to increase by at least $1 per child per day, she says. Currently federal spending on school lunch programs is about $7 billion per year. The Chez Panisse Foundation, which is also paying her salary through a grant, gives Cooper $3.50 per child for each of the fresh meals she serves in Berkeley.

"Sure," says Cooper, "quality food is going to be more costly, but what is the true cost to our environment and our kids' health?"

Orzo salad

1 pound orzo pasta
5 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
5 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Add orzo to generous pot of boiling water and cook until tender. Drain, and put in a large mixing bowl. Add oregano and mint, and toss to combine.

In a small bowl, combine oil and lemon juice and add to orzo mixture, blending well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Optional: Add pitted olives, feta cheese, or fresh tomatoes.)

Serves 8.

Carrot-ginger soup

1 teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup leek (1/2 leek), in 1/4-inch slices
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 quart vegetable stock
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2-1/2 cups carrots (3 to 4 large), diced
1 cup celery (1 to 2 stalks), diced
1 tablespoon orange juice

In a large saucepan, sauté ginger and leeks in canola oil until tender. Add stock, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer for 10 minutes.

Add carrots and celery and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and purée with a hand blender or in a standard blender.

Add the orange juice, check seasoning, and serve.

Serves 8.

– Recipes from 'Lunch Lessons' by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes

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