Interview with Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady

Do you think it’s tough to transition to healthy food with just your family? Meet Ann Cooper. She is helping schools make this transition all over the country. She is currently the Director of Nutrition Services at Boulder Valley School District, where she successfully transitioned the school lunch program from highly processed foods to healthy, from-scratch cooking that feeds 29,000 kids 100,000 meals a day. She is also the mastermind behind the Food Family Farming Foundation, LunchBox.org, and Salad Bars to Schools. Polite golf clap everyone.

Talking with Ann gave me a boost of change-the-world-confidence. The fact that she took time to talk with a regular mom means that she is genuine in her mission to change the way we feed kids. She gets the power of one. Thanks, Ann.

One of the main reasons I wanted to talk with the nicknamed Renegade Lunch Lady was prompted by our local school chocolate milk problem. Big P attends a public preschool and eats a snack at school every day. I don’t have a clue what he eats or drinks and the school makes no effort to tell me.

Chef Ann Cooper

I recently learned that they drink milk every day. However, he doesn’t get to choose regular milk or chocolate milk unless he is the “Leader of the Day.” When I gently prod him, he replies the class typically drinks chocolate milk. Duh. These kids are four years old. Even adults have a hard time turning it down. So on most days, even if he’d like to choose the healthier option, he can’t. Messed up? Yes. (Ann Cooper called it “ridiculous.”)

Here’s a short video featuring Ann that explains perfectly why I don’t think chocolate milk belongs in schools, especially in a classroom of four-year-olds.

Per Ann’s recommendations, I made plans to talk to Big P’s principal. Thanks, Ann. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do this before talking with you.

When Ann took the position at Boulder Valley School District, the lunch menu featured everything you associate with school lunch: corn dogs and canned peaches with chocolate milk tagging along on the tray. After her consulting company did an assessment, it was decided that chocolate milk had to go. I was dying to know how it went over. Some parents complained. She even received a few threats. But after about six months the hoopla died down. Now regular milk is just the new norm and parents have probably found new things to complain about.

Poor Ann had to suffer through yet another chocolate milk question from me. I then asked her, “Why do you think chocolate milk is such a divisive issue?” Her answer was perfect. “People don’t like change. Everyone likes to talk about it being divisive, but once it’s done, everyone is fine. No one likes to be told what to do.”

I wanted to toss in a Devil’s advocate question and asked, “Why is it the school’s job to decide the milk choice for them?” Again, Ann’s response was perfectly rational. She said that, “schools are supposed to keep kids safe. Schools make decisions about whether kids should or shouldn’t smoke pot and drink alcohol. Schools make decisions for kids all day long, even decisions about the right way to cross the street. We are the parents, teachers, caregivers and advocates.”

I get flak from parents surrounding healthy food that sounds like this, “Alli, lighten up. Let kids be kids.” I wanted to know how Ann would respond to this. She simply said, “Pediatric Obesity has tripled.  What is it that we don’t understand?” Amen, Sister.

There were some great questions from the Don’t Panic Mom Facebook Page. Chelsea asked, “Why is there such an uphill battle against getting good food for our children at school? That seems like a no brainier, but even talking to other moms feels like I’m debating politics rather than good common sense.”

Ann answered that this is a grey area. She said, “It’s so personal. People all have comfort food and the food they grew up with. There are also different definitions of healthy food.” Advertising is also a contributing factor in getting healthy food to our kids. Ann said in an imagi-NATION interview, “Big business spends 17-20 billion dollars a year marketing non-nutrient foods to kids; how can I get them to eat broccoli?!”

Don’t Panic Mom reader Kim asked, “Even my son and brothers (teenage boys who will eat almost anything) are rejecting most of the food they offer at school…How can we get the kids involved in making a difference at their schools during lunches to make things more appetizing yet still nutritious?” Ann suggested the following web resources for you, Kim: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the Edible School Yard, and LunchBox.org.

Finally, I wanted to know about how to get more involved. Chelsea also posted, “What can I do in my community to help in a non-threatening way?” Not all of us are comfortable being a renegade. Ann said to work on your district wellness policy. She mentioned that every school should have a wellness policy and have a committee. Okay Ann, we have our homework. Thanks for the enlightening interview!

Are the kids down for the night and you want to watch a fabulous presentation? Check out this video of Ann Cooper speaking at UC Berkley’s Edible Education 101.

Read this piece by Gilbert Cruz in Time Magazine where I first discovered Chef Ann Cooper.

Still reading? Click over here to learn about the chocolate milk I serve at my house.

2 Comment

  1. Chelsea says:

    Oh I’m so jealous, I would love to pick this woman’s brain!! Thanks for posting this, I’m totally motivated to check into our district’s wellness policy and see what is being done!!

    1. Alli says:

      Send me an email when you’ve done some sleuthing! I’m working on a tutorial page with how to work with schools to help make things healthier for our kids. I had a meeting with Big P’s principal yesterday and I wasn’t chased out of the office for being a paranoid mother.

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