'Renegade Lunch Lady' To Depart Local District

Photo: Ann Cooper, chef and director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, plans to leave her position at the end of the school year to work in Boulder, Colorado.
Aditya Rohilla/File
Ann Cooper, chef and director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, plans to leave her position at the end of the school year to work in Boulder, Colorado.

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As she leaves Berkeley Unified School District at the end of the school year, chef Ann Cooper adds one more accomplishment to her culinary repertoire-making the district a model for serving healthy meals to students.

Known as the "renegade lunch lady," Cooper eliminated all processed, frozen foods and added whole grain and salad bars to the students' diet.

"She cared about making the meals from scratch. Everyone was so excited by not having frozen tater tots and frozen chicken nuggets on the menu," said Beebo Turman, a parent whose child attended the district.

When her contract ends in June 2009, Cooper will move on to plant the seeds for a similar program in the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.

"It's time for me to leave, I have a really wonderful staff and I think that they're ready to take over," Cooper said.

Cooper, who had already created a healthy food program at a private school in New York, came to Berkeley at the behest of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and the district's Edible Schoolyard program.

In October 2005, Cooper moved from her role as a consultant for the Chez Panisse Foundation to being the district's director of nutritional services.

With backing from a three-year grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation, Cooper implemented the district's School Lunch Initiative, making Berkeley the first school district in the nation to integrate healthy food into its academic curriculum.

The idea for adopting a healthy food policy had been around since 1997, but was not successfully implemented until Cooper came, according to Eric Weaver, a district parent who chaired the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee.

"What she had was the nuts-and-bolts skills to implement the vision that a lot of people worked on," he said.

While budget cuts made serving healthy foods a constant challenge, Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said Cooper "brought costs down by bringing participation up by providing quality food."

Berkeley's district was a model, but the Boulder district will be a challenge, because it has 46 schools compared to 16 in the Berkeley district, said Beth Collins, a consultant for Lunch Lessons, which consults with schools, helping them transition to healthier eating.

The Boulder school district is next on the road, but Cooper has a more ambitious agenda that she is working to meet using her Food-Family-Farming Foundation, a Web portal with all the tools a school district would need to change its food program.

"I'm really trying to change how kids eat at a national level, that's really my big goal," Cooper said. "I really want to change how we feed kids all across America."


Jessica Kwong is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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