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Q&A: Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper

Ann Cooper wants to "blow up" the current school lunch system. (Ann Cooper)

She calls herself the Renegade Lunch Lady. And this week, Ann Cooper is storming Washington.

In town to promote the Lunchbox, a Web site developed with Whole Foods Market that offers tools and recipes for school food directors, Cooper is meeting with policymakers, Department of Agriculture officials and giving a flurry of interviews. Her message: That we have to "blow up" the current school lunch program and start from scratch.

And as Cooper likes to say, "oh, by the way," that's going to take a lot more money.

Cooper started out as a chef in fine-dining restaurants. But she earned her reputation when she went to Berkeley and overhauled the school lunch program. Greasy pizza and chicken nuggets were out. Cooking from scratch was in. This year, she moved to Boulder. School has just begun, but already the new menu items, including pasta Bolognese and barbecue chicken sandwiches, have helped increase sales, she said.

This year, Congress is set to reauthorize child nutrition programs, including $12 billion for school meals. And like many, Cooper is making the case that better food for kids is part of creating a healthier society. But in an interview, Cooper also discussed more controversial issues, including how government standards actually increase calories on the lunch line, why the USDA should no longer regulate school lunch and why chefs, not dietitians, should take charge of school lunch. Excerpts follow:

Jane Black: Everyone wants more money, but policymakers are not optimistic that, after health-care reform, there's going to be a lot left over for school lunch reimbursement. What incremental changes can you make if you don't get more?

Ann Cooper: We need more money. Flat out, we need more money. We're spending $8.5 billion a year on 5.4 billion lunches. It ends up at about $2.70 a lunch, and almost every school across the country spends two-thirds of that on overhead and labor. And what can you buy with what's left? To say we can't afford it is really disingenuous. It just is that we haven't made it a priority.

JB: Some policymakers think you are asking for the moon. But you also have clashed with people such as Chez Panisse chef-restaurateur Alice Waters, who has complained you don't go far enough. What kinds of compromises do you have to make?

AC: The very first thing we need is fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and clean protein. If we could get rid of the highly processed food, refined sugar and flour, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, we would be so far ahead.

Let's not talk about where it comes from at this point. I never start with, "It has to be local." I start with, "It has to be food." If we could just feed children food, we would have made huge progress. Then we can talk about how it was produced and where it comes from.

We can't have better, designer, processed food. I know there are meetings all over Washington today and tomorrow. And the big companies are there talking about how with more money they can make better products. I'm not interested in better products! I'm interested in food. And we can get food to children if we work at it.

JB: So how do we do that?

AC: Here's the problem. The system is all developed around nutrients, not around food. And [author] Michael Pollan has written eloquently about this, as have [New York University nutritionist] Marion Nestle and others. The reality is if you talk nutrients, the people who understand nutrients are registered dietitians. I think RDs are wonderful. But they are knowledgeable about numbers and when you look at all of that stuff -- whether it's Ring Dings and CornNuts -- all of that stuff is allowed by the USDA. The numbers work.

Another thing: When you have RDs who don't really know food, who don't really know procurement or purchasing, it's tough. In Berkeley and Boulder, we had to fire all the purveyors and say we're not going to buy anything from you guys because it's not real food. You've got to know food. You've got to be able to taste the food. You need to be able to negotiate with these guys. If organic milk is important, then what will you pay a little less for? How do you afford those salad bars? It takes people with a different skill set than the RDs ever had.

JB: Okay, but how do you create a policy that's not about working the numbers?

AC: I think we should say fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and clean protein. What are the amount of those we should be feeding kids?

We only have a minimum calorie count, not a maximum, under the USDA standards. That came from World War II when we had malnourished children who couldn't serve in the military. So then they lowered the fat to 30 percent. But when you lowered the fat, the calorie count was not lowered.

So we as lunch ladies couldn't meet the calorie count. That's how desserts and chocolate milk and all this stuff got into schools. We added desserts and refined sugars to be able to meet the calorie count.

JB: Wow. When was that?

AC: It wasn't that long ago. It was maybe 10 years ago. And, oh by the way, in this age of obesity, you can feed kids 2,000 calories at lunch. No problem. That's not an issue. But if I serve 600 instead of 650, I can get busted. And when you serve fresh fruits and vegetables, you're hard-pressed to hit those calorie counts at lunch.

JB: Should we take the regulation of school lunch away from the USDA?

AC: I believe that we should. I believe there is a tremendous amount of conflict of interest with the USDA. They were founded to be the marketing arm for big agribusiness. And they're also in charge of the national school lunch program. When they are under the same department, all that food we don't need is pushed into schools.

JB: Not surprisingly, there has been some pushback from the School Nutrition Association about what you are saying. They bristle when you say that school food, for lack of a better word, sucks.

AC: You know every group and organization, including myself, needs someone further out there to make them look a little bit more center. And what I've said to them is, 'You know what, I'm out there. My job is not on the line. I don't have to be PC. I can be the one that says the government really has to change. I'm the one who can say we should be spending $5 per lunch. I'm the one who has to say the USDA is complicit. So don't feel like I'm the challenge. I'm the one who allows you to push behind me.'

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  September 10, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition, school lunch  
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It's shameful that we can so readily make available endless amounts of money for school athletics programs - primarily football - yet we can't feed schoolkids quality lunches. This is all about parents' priorities and that's got to change!

Posted by: rodaniel | September 11, 2009 6:01 AM | Report abuse

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