Ann Cooper dared to ask, “what if?” when it comes to the possibilities of school nutrition. She started asking the tough questions that at times over the years seemed impossible for an archaic, cumbersome and slow-moving machine of the school lunch system. Challenging the system became Cooper’s mantra as she steadily, surely and successfully made changes with a ripple effect that have positively impacted the nutrition of millions of kids.
Now, at retirement after a decade at Boulder Valley School District (but still active as an advocate and with the Chef Ann Foundation), Cooper took time to share her perspective as she leaves the day-to-day of school lunch in the capable hands of a new generation of leaders.
“The Renegade Lunch Lady moniker that was coined back in my Berkeley Unified days is ready to be set aside as thousands of ‘lunch ladies’ have created their own revolutions in school districts across the United States,” Cooper says, but is quick to point out: “However, there’s still work to be done to provide the nation’s children unfettered and free access to fresh, whole foods.”
Here’s her story:
“I am such an unlikely person to have become a school food advocate. As a restaurant chef I never knew what kids ate and really didn’t want to know. The worst thing I could imagine was a server running into the kitchen saying, ‘Chef, there’s a screaming kid at table 19, what do I do?’ and I’d respond, ‘just ask them to leave, they shouldn’t be disturbing my guests.’ But then, as always…life happened.
I had 25 years in the industry in 1999 when I received a call from the Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., asking me if I’d consider coming to work there. I literally said, ‘No way, I’m a chef, not a lunch lady.’ They asked me to come visit and I met the founder, Courtney Ross who wanted organic, local and sustainable food to be one of their core pillars. I loved her ideas: healthy food free to all students and staff, a school garden, a wellness center housing the cafeteria and integration between academics and the food program. I felt like it all ‘clicked.’ What if we could feed kids healthy food, teach them about their health, the health of the planet and the symbiotic relationship between them all….What if we could?
Ross School was the laboratory in the private sector that showed what was possible. I left Ross School and transitioned to the public sector where the archaic system of the USDA and outdated guidelines for feeding children in public schools ruled.
Looking back on 20 years of feeding children within school district bureaucracies directed by strict federal guidelines, I am still astounded that the concept of kids willingly eating fresh, whole foods has been adopted by the USDA.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the limitations and weaknesses of the USDA’s programs for providing meals to children in schools and to families’ in need. Many school food service professionals would say, ‘It was the Wild West.’
In Boulder County, our school district teams—administrators, transportation, maintenance and educators—worked with the food service department to create a system for preparing and packing out millions of pounds of food and provide safe food access for all families in our district. The state’s Child Nutrition Division supported our approach of bagging a week’s worth of ‘meals’ as fresh and whole ingredients that families could cook at home.
Since March 2020, we have had to pivot too many times to count to respond to whatever educational model was being utilized. Seeing the team come together and, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, overcoming every hurdle to make sure all of our students were fed was amazing. Over a million meals have been distributed—free to all—a basic right I have been advocating for in school food since I founded the Chef Ann Foundation in 2008.
I wasn’t planning to retire before Boulder Valley School District’s new central kitchen was fully operational, but the delayed schedule of the construction over the last two years, 10 months of COVID-19 and my 67th birthday converged and ‘the time’ had come. My team in the district is greater as a whole than I am individually. They are so talented and have worked alongside me for 10 years building one of the most innovative school district food systems in the United States. I am honored to have had my time in the district and I am excited for their future.
I plan to continue my work as a school food advocate through the Chef Ann Foundation, which has collaborated with 12,000 schools and supported healthy food for over 4 million children since it was founded. With the new administration and Secretary Vilsack, I hope we can learn from the pitfalls of the COVID-19 pandemic and work to modernize the school food regulatory environment, so school food service teams have the best tools available for feeding kids delicious, ingredient-based meals.
It should be a birthright in this country that every child, every day should have access to healthy/delicious food in school and that no child should ever be hungry.
As I write this, our Capitol Building is under siege. Our country is polarized. My parting hope is that we can come together as a country to eliminate childhood hunger, eliminate childhood obesity, institute universal free meals for all children and raise the profiles of all those lunch ladies all across our country who became first responders for our children’s health.
You are my heroes – thank you for all you have done for our nation’s children.”
As told to Tara Fitzpatrick on Jan. 7, 2021.