Chef Ann Cooper, also known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” has been working to improve public school lunches from the inside first in Berkeley, and now in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. I asked Chef Cooper a few questions for our series, Faces & Visions of the Food Movement.
Civil Eats: What issues have you been focused on?
Ann Cooper: School food. The big thing around why this is so important is that one-third of all Caucasians and one of every two blacks and Hispanics will have diabetes and will die before their parents. It’s the social equity issue of our time. If we don’t change the way kids are eating, we will start to die off. If we don’t turn this around we’ll all be obese by 2040. And it’s all about money.
I wish all the people working on these issues could just come together and agree on a platform and agree on what we’re going to do. Can we all agree to do whatever it will take? What happens in our movement is everyone has their own agenda. We saw this in the write-in campaigns and everyone’s doing great things. But there’s no one thing we can agree on. We’re in too many places doing to many things. There’s something important about saying this is the one thing we want to do. If we change school lunch and teach ‘them’ the meaning of healthy people and healthy planet, then we can fix the planet.
If we can come up with one agenda that we can all stand behind, we can beat the conservatives.
The challenge is that everyone is trying to raise money. Big business doesn’t have to raise any money. We’re all going after money from the same well. Everybody is going to the same people for money. So it’s hard to have one view so you’re no different than anyone else, therefore the foundations need to take this on as well. Foundations need to come together to build a platform people can work towards to build a more powerful outcome.
CE: What inspires you to do this work?
AC: We’re killing our kids and we’re killing them in the name of profit and we have to stop doing it. And, there’s nothing more important.
CE: What’s your overall vision?
AC: Change the way we feed our kids in America.
CE: Who’s in your community?
AC: There are people all over the country doing this kind of work. And, that’s really great. I spend most of my days dealing with the day-to-day operations of a fairly large school district, 30,000 kids, and I also have a consulting company and a foundation and I’m really wrapped up in doing this on an on-the-ground basis.
CE: What are your goals?
AC: Stop killing kids with food. Stop putting profit before nurture. To put myself out a job because the country as a whole is taking care of it’s kids.
CE: What does change look like to you?
AC: Change would be having a government that’s protecting our children that would just demand that big business profit isn’t more important than kids and the planet. That people all across the country would see kids’ health as a priority and the symbiotic relationship between healthy kids, healthy earth and healthy profits.
CE: Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
AC: We’re building the web portal. It’s really our big social engagement piece and with The Lunch Box what we’re doing is trying to give people the tools they need to start making these changes all across the country.
CE: What projects are affiliated with yours?
AC: We partner with a lot of organizations from the Kellogg Foundation, The Children’s Health Foundation, the Colorado Health Foundation, Orfalea Foundation, Whole Foods Market, Barbara’s Bakery, Allergy Kids, the Environmental Working Group, Roots of Change, Two Angry Moms, What’s on Your Plate, Farm to School and many more.
CE: What projects have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
AC: The Food Corps is a really great idea and is something I think is going to be really good. School Food Focus is working on school issues as is Farm to School.
CE: Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
AC: I don’t know. Some days I’m optimistic and some days I’m not. There’s so much money inherent in the system. Look at Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, there’s no mention of kids, food or heath, there’s no money behind it. We are such a partisan politics country that I just don’t know. Though there really is a movement here. We’re working towards the next Farm Bill and CNR. There’s a lot of reason to be optimistic and partisan politics and money are just difficult to overcome.
CE: What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
AC: Depends the season I was living in. In The summer I might be walking out to the field and picking fresh tomatoes and basil and coming inside to make the perfect salad with oil and salt and pepper. But if it was in the middle of a Colorado winter: braised buffalo ribs with polenta. I’d have to pick the day and then I can answer the questions better.