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School Food, Is There Hope? Chef Ann Cooper Opens The Lunch Box (Q&A)

Her nonprofit has just launched a revolutionary web portal offering free scaleable recipes, curricula, technical tools and community discussion -- an online engine that can spur real school food reform.
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There was good news last week as the Senate passed the Child Nutrition Act. But for innovators like Chef Ann Cooper it's not about waiting for legislators to save the sorry state of school food. She's just launched a revolutionary new web portal, The Lunch Box -- offering free scaleable recipes, curricula, technical tools and community discussion -- an online engine that can spur real school food reform.

With 35 years in the culinary world, Chef Ann Cooper has undergone a remarkable transformation of her own, from star chef to "the Renegade Lunch Lady," spearheading reform in the Berkeley CA public school system and now in Boulder CO. She's written numerous books and consistently championed a nationwide transition from processed foods to a sustainable model using regional produce. In my quest to speak with experts on all matters food, I talked with Chef Ann about the importance of The Lunch Box, the role of a renegade in these politically charged times, and the need for all of us to take responsibility for kids' health.

Chris Elam: You've now launched The Lunch Box. Congratulations! Tell us, there are other programs and sites that encourage healthy school foods, what makes The Lunch Box so unique?

Chef Ann Cooper: I think it all comes down to powerful tools. Under our recipe section, we've built a recipe database unlike anything out there. We have over 120 kid- and school-tested recipes. You can scale them for elementary or secondary portions. We offer serving sizes by weight, applicable by volume, and full nutritional info. We also show CN (Child Nutrition) equivalents for elementary and secondary serving sizes. That way, for each recipe, school food staff can see how it matches up to their guidelines. Further, all the recipes are downloadable and exportable. Plus, there's pan sizes, portion sizes per pan, even recommended utensils. It's a pretty comprehensive recipe database!

Then we offer resources such as proven curricula and classes, nutritional materials, and tips. Technical tools involving commodities and procurement. And a community platform fostering open dialogue for nutrition directors and mothers alike. We hope to make this a one-stop shop for school food reform!

CE: Wow. I know it's taken you many years to put this together. Why is now the right time to launch The Lunch Box?

CAC: Well, the country probably needed it years, decades, ago. But yeah, I think we've reached "our moment." It's no longer just me yelling kicking and screaming! We have Michelle Obama, the First Lady of our country, pushing the initiative for healthy kids in schools. We have President Obama who talks about kids health and planetary health and food all in one sentence. The last president who talked about kids health and food in the same breath was President Reagan who made ketchup a vegetable.

Plus there's Jamie Oliver doing a reality show on school lunch. You can't read a newspaper, or listen to a public radio station, and not hear about school food! In 5 years, we've gone from basically no one but an advocate thinking about school lunches, to it being discussed around the dinner table. That's an incredible step in the right direction.

Not to mention child obesity! The report just came out that obesity rates have actually risen in this country again. The CDC says that of children born in the year 2000, 1/3 of Caucasians and 2/3 of African-Americans and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetime, many before they graduate high school. And it's really because of what we feed them!

Ultimately, we have to take responsibility as adults. The reality is these 10-year old kid shouldn't be deciding what they eat all the time. We're the adults, we have to make hard choices. If what we're feeding our kids is making them sick and frankly lowering their life expectancy, we have to try something new -- and school food is a place we can make positive change!

CE: Can you tell us what was the one moment, whether professional or personal, when you realized you had to do The Lunch Box?

CAC: Well, I'm sort of an unlikely lunch lady. I've spent 35 years in the culinary world. I've been executive chef at whitetable restaurants all over this country, and abroad. I never knew what kids ate. I didn't want to know. The worst thing that someone could say to me on a Saturday night was there's a screaming child at table 19, what do I do? Ask them to leave, I'd reply, why are they in my restaurant?

And then I wrote Bitter Harvest, my second of four books. I really started to think about the food supply system, and why food makes us sick. That segued into: what's going on with kids and school food? Now, this was in the late 90's, a long time ago when you consider where we are in sustainable food. I thought: people don't know what's happening, we'll have to tell them.

Around the same time, I got a call from the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, to take over their food services program. I balked, then finally took a look, and said, Wow, this really could make a difference. The Lunch Box is a natural extension of these last 10 years in school food.

CE: Do you think we need renegades these days to really affect change?

CAC: It's a funny term, really. Why am I the Renegade Lunch Lady? Because I want to serve kids broccoli? Is that renegade? Well, it sort of is, sadly.

But, to answer your question: yes, I think we do. Here's the reason why. Let's imagine I'm a typical nutrition services director in a school, and I want to make change. I probably really need my job. Keeping my job is dependent upon my walking a political tightrope. Not overly rocking the boat -- and absolutely dependent upon my bringing everything in on budget.

That's a very difficult place from which to make real change, or even advocate change. Whereas I can stand up and shout and cry foul. My job isn't dependent upon my being politically correct. I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post and came out against Obama's original budget and the Child Nutrition Act that was going to give us an added 10 cents. Now, it's down to 6 cents, and I'm happy for at least that. But we need advocates to be able to say everything that people in their daily lives can't.

Also, when you have people saying things that are way out there, it makes the people trying to affect change on the ground seem moderate. That's key. "So, all you want is to remove chocolate milk? That's totally realistic compared to everything Chef Ann Cooper wants!"

CE: May I ask, what report card grade would you give Michelle Obama so far for her Let's Move campaign?

CAC: I give her an A+ for bringing attention to this very very complicated issue, and for tirelessly working to bring childrens' health and school food to the forefront.

That said, we're in a partisan political period. You really see that in her campaign. It's all about health and school and kids -- and yet it's named "Let's Move." Why? Because politically, Big Food doesn't want you talking about food. Plus, there's no policy and no money in her campaign. That says it all. Even so, Michelle does an op-ed in the Washington Post and two days later the Senate unanimously approves the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. So, an A+ for effort in a very difficult political environment.

CE: Let's get back to The Lunch Box. You offer incredible ammunition in the fight to improve school foods. Where did all those recipes come from? Did you work with various partners?

CAC: The recipes all came from our work in schools. So that would be the Ross School on Long Island, and then Berkeley Unified School District. Writing my book Lunch Lessons allowed me to further create easy-to-follow, healthful recipes and simple meal swaps. Plus, our recipes draw from the "culinary boot camps" run by Kate Adamick and Andrea Martin.

All this began 10 years ago when I first heard from school food directors that people needed these recipes and resources. I began to compile tools. Then about 2 years ago, we received a planning grant from the Kellogg Foundation to build out a business plan and a beta site. Then a year ago, we partnered with Whole Foods Market, helping us raise $700,000 to really build the site. Our for-profit sponsors, including Whole Foods, Chipotle and Barbara's Bakery, have been wonderful.

CE: What's your plan for getting The Lunch Box out to schools?

CAC: Next week we're launching a back-to-school project with Whole Foods, and there should be a significant amount of press. We'll be working with our partners Slow Food, Environmental Working Group, Roots of Change and Farm To School to really push this out through their networks. The School Nutrition Association has agreed to promote The Lunch Box website. Additionally, we're going to do a train-the-trainer programs with Farm To School to train people out in the field.

Ultimately, I hope The Lunch Box becomes the go-to-place for everything school food related. That it becomes an advocacy and action oriented vehicle to really support not only the food services and nutrition services people in the schools, but everyone across the country who wants to positively impact the way we educate our kids.

CE: One final question...let's call it the Chef Ann Big Three. Talking about genuine, lasting change...what's the one thing you'd recommend adopting that would have the most schools, in national policy, and in family homes?

CAC: Oh, that's tough. There's so much. For schools...I'd say start to move from processed foods to scratch cook. But that's a huge task. I guess one of the things schools can do across the country is add salad bars with fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, whole grains and healthy protein. This is the back-to-school program we're doing with Whole Foods coming out next week.

For national policy...we need to raise the reimbursement rate (the money the federal government provides states for lunches, afterschool snacks and breakfasts served to children) and we need to immediately adopt the Institute of Medicine guidelines. More money by itself won't work. But more money in conjunction with guidelines will get better food on our kids' plates.

For families...I don't say this tongue in cheek: turn off the TV. That way you can start making cooking, food, eating and growing a central part of your family's life

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