Ann Cooper is on a long-term mission: to bring healthier foods to children at school, “one lunch at a time.” Cooper began cooking on cruise ships and for hotels, but in 1999 she took over the kitchen of a private school in New York City, where her mission was born. She later became head of nutrition for Berkeley, California, schools and now serves as director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District. Through the Chef Ann Foundation (chefannfoundation.org) and her books—she’s written four, including Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (Harper Collins, 2009)—her work has inspired a national school lunch food movement.
What is the secret formula for healthier lunches?
It’s really simple. It’s just real food and healthy protein that isn’t processed and is hormone- and antibiotic-free.
How do you implement change in the schools?
We start by getting rid of processed food one item at a time. Schools are drug-free zones, alcohol-free zones, but we haven’t stood up to say they will be junk-free zones. Why is this an area where kids should have free reign?
How can parents reinforce good eating habits at home?
Only one out of every four meals is eaten at home, and one out of every five at a table. You have to sit down and eat with your kids. Ultimately, good eating habits start around the family table—it’s hard for kids to make good choices at school if they’re allowed to make poor choices at home. Start with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and with animal protein as a garnish, not the center of the plate.
But isn’t that really expensive?
The idea that you have to eat McDonald’s to afford to eat is wrong; what you have to do is cook at home.
If we’re going to change children’s relationships with food, make them part of the process. Let your kids cook—don’t have them sit in front of the TV while you cook. Cook, shop and eat with them.
Any tips for involving kids in grocery shopping?
Take your kids to the store with you. Tell them, ‘Buy anything you want that’s not processed, and we’ll figure out how to make it together.’ Expose them to real food.
What is the Chef Ann Foundation?
Both in New York and Berkeley, people would ask, ‘How can you help us? We need recipes, we need this and that.’ It came to me that we needed to build something. I envisioned a lunch box with all of this information. This was before everything was digital. Now, we have a website (chefannfoundation.org). It’s really about sharing information about school food in all of its machinations—salad bars, gardens, parent advocacy.