On May 23, Chef Ann Cooper presented a convocation address at Skinner Memorial Chapel “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Children.” Known as the “renegade lunch lady,” Cooper is at the forefront of a movement to improve lunch programs at schools nationally by making meals healthier in addition to introducing organic and locally grown foods into school cafeterias.
Cooper previously served as the executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition at The Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y. where she revolutionized the food service and by using sustainable and healthier foods. In addition, Cooper brought her ideas to other schools such as public schools in New York City and Berkeley, Calif. where she helped make organic lunches a standard in school cafeterias.
Cooper currently serves as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, a school district with sixteen schools and 9,000 students. Through her current position, Cooper is trying to lobby to transform the National School Lunch Program by ensuring that the healthier food takes priority over the interests and demands of the large corporations who provide the majority of food to school districts. In addition to her roles at the Berkeley Unified School District, Cooper has also written many books including “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children” and “In Mother’s Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes.” She also has been active in various committees and organization including serving as president of both the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and The American Culinary Federation of Central Vermont.
Cooper started her address by discussing how she made a transition from being a “ski bum” to falling in love with food and cooking. She then mentioned how she got involved with cooking for schools after previously cooking for celebrities. “In 1999, I went to The Ross School and came up with the program called ‘Regional, Organic, Seasonal, Sustainable.’ It was really a way to figure out, in the perfect world, how we would feed kids and what we would teach them about food.”
Cooper also talked about the importance of regional food within school systems. Cooper mentioned one situation where sick cows that could not walk were killed for beef at a slaughterhouse in California, causing a giant recall after the slaughterhouse was exposed for what happened. Cooper discussed the various dangerous chemicals within food including pesticides, antibiotics and irradiated food. Cooper described how sustainable food could be a viable solution for the various issues that plague the food industry.
“[Sustainable food] is food that is consumed, made and produced in a way that gives back, that takes care of the farmers and farm workers, that takes care of everyone who eats the food, that takes care of the planet and that takes care of our businesses,” said Cooper. “It has to be a balance. It’s that triple bottom line, people, profit, planet, that we have to think about, that has to be part of what we do.”
Cooper spent most of her presentation on the importance of feeding students healthy foods and mentioned the startlingly high rates of diabetes and other food-related diseases in children today. After her address, Cooper answered questions from the audience.