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School Lunch Reform and Ann Cooper’s Bigger, Boulder Move

Katrina Heron

The world of public-school lunch reform is abuzz this week as chef/author Ann Cooper, the outgoing Director of Food Services for the Berkeley Unified School District, takes charge of Boulder’s school cafeterias. Cooper earned national acclaim for remaking Berkeley’s meals program top to bottom in three years’ time. Out: transfats, high-fructose corn syrup, anything processed and pre-packaged, frozen vegetables, syrupy canned fruit, Wonder bread, vending machine snacks. In: fresh whole fruits and vegetables (many from local organic farms), salad bars with seasonal produce, organic milk, whole grains, fresh-baked breads, composting, recycling – and breakfast.

Cooper invented her role as “renegade lunch lady” in the late 90s at a small private school in New York. Berkeley was a big step up for her, with 10,000 students in 16 schools, and Boulder is another jump in scale, to 30,000 students in 50 schools. But the challenges will be all too familiar, she says: “When school kitchens don’t have stoves, when the staff doesn’t know how to cook, there’s a lot of basic learning that’s necessary.”

A lot of her work will involve breaking the district’s dependence on the conventional school-food procurement system, which is administered by the USDA via the National School Lunch Program. Even before unpacking her boxes, Cooper has cut loose Boulder Valley School District’s four food purveyors and selected 20 new ones to take their place, many of these local producers. “There was one chicken farmer from the western slope who approached me,” she says. “But I told him, give me a year before we think about that.” Right now, she’s focused on debuting a nutritious fall-term menu, encouraging school staff, parents and kids on a new learning curve, and laying plans for a healthy-food purchasing system that’s locally attuned and economically viable.

Cooper expects this task to take her the usual three or so years. (She’s kind of like Mary Poppins that way—not, mind you, the refined-sugar version from the movie, but the amazingly bracing character in the book: confidently abrupt, sometimes irascible, always right, never in one place for too long.) After Boulder, she wants to continue on with her work at the national level, spurred by the current administration’s focus on childhood obesity and health-care reform. She’s preparing for that last leap by creating a nonprofit, F3 (Food Family Farming) that will offer online “lunch box” tutorials on how to rid K-12 programs of processed foods and cook meals from scratch instead.

In other words, Berkeley and Boulder x 11,000 (the number of U.S. school districts). “We can’t get far enough, fast enough by fixing these programs one by one,” she says. “But the models we’re putting in place—and sustaining—should send a strong message that this change can happen everywhere. You just have to be willing to figure it out.”

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Katrina Heron is a San Francisco-based writer and editor who was Board Chair of Slow Food Nation 2008. A former Editor-in Chief of Wired Magazine, she was also a senior editor at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The New York Times magazines. She is a director of the Chez Panisse Foundation.

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