Ann Cooper doesn’t want to be a renegade anymore. As a nationally recognized school nutrition advocate and Director of Nutrition for the Boulder Valley School District, Cooper hopes her focus on healthy, fresh, nutritious school foods will become the new norm.
(Listen to an audio clip of the interview here.)
Cooper calls herself an “unlikely candidate” for a renegade chef, saying her early career in New York restaurants was no indication of her future as a school food advocate.
“I never knew what kids ate, I didn’t care what they ate,” Cooper said. But her views took a turn as she moved toward a more sustainable, organic approach to cooking. “I started really understanding sustainability, how food supplies are owned, how food makes us sick … and I started really thinking about why food makes kids sick.”
Boulder Valley has been phasing out processed foods and bringing in fresh foods since Cooper arrived in 2008, ahead of the national move to make cafeterias healthier under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Cooper says support for the initiative in Boulder started strong and continues to grow.
Changing minds about school nutrition may not be an exact science, but Cooper sees the same challenges for every school district: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. She admits financial constraints are an obstacle, but marketing the new menus may be the biggest hurdle.
“There is so much negative commentary about the new guidelines,” Cooper said, add most much of it was from students. A recent New York Times article reports discontent among students from around the U.S. in districts just beginning to implement the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Some students even posted a YouTube clip called “We Are Hungry,” which has garnered nearly 1 million views.
“The USDA has made great strides, and I would hate to see that go backwards because kids make a YouTube video,” Cooper said.
The New York Times article said giving the program more time may be crucial to increasing student acceptance of new lunch menus, and Cooper agrees. Apart from places like Boulder Valley and Berkeley, where Cooper spent four years as a school nutrition official prior to Boulder, “few places were making the changes early enough in the process so you could educate the kids,” she said. “Instead the kids come back into the school year, and it’s blowing up. But, we’re not seeing that here … because we’ve spent three years working on it.”
She empathizes with schools facing pushback as they try to get their programs rolling.
“I know how painful it is. But you don’t repeal the law because some kids think 850 calories is not enough,” Cooper said.“It’s a big lunch, right?” It’s really unfortunate that that’s where it’s going.”
Maureen McNamara, Environmental Health Specialist at the Boulder County Health Department, says under Cooper’s guidance Boulder Valley has focused its resources wisely to make the program work.
“There are three main production kitchens in the school district, and these kitchens have the equipment to actually make things from scratch and distribute to other schools daily,” McNamara said. “Some cafeterias, especially at elementary schools, were designed just to heat up and serve.”
Not only is food fresh, healthy and prepared from scratch, it’s tasty enough that student participation in the school lunch program has increased. Boulder Valley has yet to conduct an official assessment of the program, due to lack of funding.
“A study here would cost a couple million, and I would rather put it into the kids’ plates,” Cooper said. “I already know it’s working. I don’t need to spend two million dollars to have somebody tell me it works.”
Convincing independent-minded teenagers to eat healthy school lunches may be a losing battle. But changing dietary habits amongst elementary school children is critical for the Boulder Valley School District.
“BVSD believes in the whole child approach to education,” said Leslie Stafford, chief financial officer for Boulder Valley. “Health and wellness and healthy school lunch is an important component in that approach.”
A recent study by the Trust for America’s Health, F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2012, recommends tackling school lunches first and foremost. Cooper agrees.
“We have an obesity crisis in America,” she said. “If we don’t turn this around by 2030, two-thirds of all Americans will be obese. How can we look at that and not believe there’s a serious problem?”
At least for now, it seems Ann Cooper remains a renegade.
(Link to audio interview here.)