First in East Hampton, New York, then in Berkeley, California—and now in Boulder—chef Ann Cooper has overhauled school lunch menus, replacing highly processed foods with healthy meals. Here, Cooper talks about lunch ladies, school gardens, and the health of our youngest generation.

I started cooking when I lived in Telluride and the only job I could find was as an assistant breakfast cook at the Airport Bar and Grill. I fell in love with it. I went to the Culinary Institute of America; I was a chef on cruise ships—I went twice around the world; and I owned my own restaurant in Telluride.

We don’t have a culture around food. We have a culture around technology. Sixty years ago, lunch ladies were dying off and school districts didn’t know what to do. It was post-World War II, and we had all this technology and [dormant] factories…that was the beginning of processed food.

My least favorite modern convenience is the microwave.

Rome, Italy, has a model lunch program. They cook fresh, organic, made-from-scratch meals for 140,000 children daily. They spend $5 to $6 per kid. In Boulder we’re spending close to $1.30 per student, which is better than most districts’ 85 to 95 cents per student. The government and communities need to decide this is something we need to change.

Boulder’s lunch program was spectacularly bad—especially given that this city is a hotbed for liberal and healthy lifestyles. My goal here is to replace all processed foods with fresh whole foods, grains, and salad bars. And, breakfast in every school. That’s really important. There will be cereal and baked goods, healthy stuff—no Lucky Charms.

We are killing our kids—what we’re feeding them is making them sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that, for black and Hispanic kids born in the year 2000, 30 to 35 percent could be insulin-dependent by high school. This will be the first generation to die before their parents. It’s a social issue, a moral issue.

With the Obamas in place, I hope we see more thought put into school lunch. This year is the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which determines nutrition guidelines and money spent.

The Boulder Valley School District spends $2.5 million a year on food, and that food should be from here, if possible. We’ll use Colorado milk, bread products, and baked goods. We won’t import from other countries.

We’ll have 12 school gardens in 2009-2010. These are grown for the students, not the kitchen. They’re for the kids to taste, cook, experiment—it’s hands-on, experiential-learning education, and we need that.

After I finish in Boulder, I want to focus on my foundation, Food Family Farming Foundation, and change the way kids eat nationwide.

My guilty pleasures: red wine, good dark chocolate, and a hot tub. Although, I don’t feel very guilty about them.

My biggest regret is that I haven’t already fixed this issue—and it likely won’t be fixed in my lifetime. We need to fix this once and for all. It should be a birthright in America to have a healthy breakfast and lunch in school.

This article was originally published in 5280 August 2009.
Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison
Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.