School lunch activist
For getting kids to eat better. Jamie Oliver showed on TV how most elementary school kids can't identify a head of broccoli, and Michelle Obama has made child nutrition her mission in the White House. But before them, school lunch activist Ann Cooper was working to transform the crap our kids eat in schools into actual food. A professional chef, Cooper was hired in 2005 with a grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation to overhaul the Berkeley, California, Unified School District's lunch program. She found the kids eating heat-and-serve tater tots and greasy pizzas. She retrained the lunch ladies to make things like teriyaki chicken baked from scratch rather than defrosted extruded chicken nuggets, banished products with high-fructose corn syrup, and installed salad bars.
Today Cooper's doing the same to the school lunch system in Boulder, Colorado, and in partnership with Whole Foods is putting 300 salad bars in schools across the country. The self-described "renegade lunch lady" is also one of the funniest voices in the national debate on child health and obesity (watch our Obsessives video with her). When a recent study, funded by Big Dairy, warned that removing sugary flavored milks from schools would lessen milk in children's diets, Cooper was quoted as saying, "So do we serve apple pie rather than apples? ... Flavored milk is soda in drag."
How do you get kids to eat—and enjoy—healthier food?
It's going to take a big, big community push. Tastings in schools, Iron Chef competitions, calendars to send home with what's in season this month. Outreach to parents. It has to come from change in the home and schools. Turn off the TV and grow something with kids. The government got us to not drink and drive, to wear seat belts. They need to do the same thing with the message that real food is cool food, and to stop eating junk food. I think if big [food] business can be tackled in the same way that big cigarettes were tackled, it's possible.
What was your most humbling moment in your job?
It's really humbling when the kids don't eat it. At the Ross School [a private school in New York where Cooper worked revamping the cafeteria before Berkeley], they were eating American-cheese-on-white-bread grilled cheese sandwiches. We went to serving Grafton sharp cheddar on 100 percent whole-wheat bread we baked. In the first few weeks of school, all the fifth-graders walked into the cafeteria and said, "I hate your food, and we're going on a hunger strike." Working with them, we did tastings and baked bread with them, and compromised by going to a medium cheddar and 60 percent whole-wheat bread. The next year, those now sixth-graders were walking around to the incoming fifth-graders saying, "You're lucky we fixed things for you!"