Local Chef Lobbies for Healthy Lunches in Schools Nationwide

Photo: <b>Ann Cooper</b> has spent the last four years integrating healthy lunches into local schools. This fall, she is lobbying to bring her nutrition initiatives nationwide.
Aditya Rohilla/File
Ann Cooper has spent the last four years integrating healthy lunches into local schools. This fall, she is lobbying to bring her nutrition initiatives nationwide.

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Chef Ann Cooper's Next Move

Melody Ng talks to Berkeley Chef Ann Cooper about the importance of nutrition for children and her plan to lobby Washington for healthier lunches.

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The chef who revamped nutrition in Berkeley's schools is now bringing her passion for healthy lunches to Capitol Hill.

Ann Cooper, who ended her four-year run in June 2009 as the Berkeley Unified School District's director of nutritional services, has begun lobbying in Washington D.C. for improvements to the Child Nutrition Act. Cooper spearheaded an effort in Berkeley to remove frozen foods from school kitchens and introduce fresh produce to students' diets.

In 2005, with backing from a three-year grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation, Cooper began implementing the district's School Lunch Initiative, making Berkeley the first school district in the nation to integrate healthy food into its academic curriculum.

The nutrition act, which was first established in 1966 and is meant to promote nutrition in schools nationwide, must be reauthorized and adjusted by Congress every five years. Discussion regarding the act is set to take place in the legislature between now and the end of this year.

Among other efforts, Cooper is lobbying to improve nutritional guidelines for school lunch programs. She also said she is pushing for $5.4 billion to be appropriated to the National School Lunch Program, which provides low cost or free daily lunches to school children.

"We need a dollar (more) per lunch (for) 5.4 billion lunches a year," said Cooper, who was named in July the interim director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.

Other improvements to the act for which she is lobbying include the allocation of funds towards fresh ingredients in school lunches and school kitchens regionally, and the initiation of a national training program for all food service workers.

Cooper also said she will be lobbying to start a program she calls the "Culinary Core," which would provide loan reimbursements for graduating culinary students who choose employment within K-12 education. But her plans do not stop there.

"We need a national campaign to make healthy food 'cool food' -- in the same way we got kids to stop smoking--to get kids to stop eating food that's bad for them," said Cooper.

The Lunch Box, an online project she started in August, is a Web portal that offers K-12 schools access to free resources that can aid their efforts towards learning about and implementing a healthier lunch program.

The tools on the Web portal will allow schools to transition with more ease from their current processed food-based meal programs to more healthy food-based menus. The goal is to have the food cooked from scratch with locally acquired ingredients.

Cooper also founded the Food Family Farming Foundation which has been collaborating with five other foundations and Whole Foods Market to raise money for The Lunch Box.

Meanwhile, in Berkeley, Mark Coplan, Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson, said school staff are continuing the work Cooper initiated in the district and that the nutrition initiative she spearheaded has become financially viable.

"For the first time ever, we're starting to see returns come back economically," he said.

Parents in the district said they can see the importance of Cooper's work on a national scale.

"I'm hoping her work will spread across the country," said Betsy Bigelow-Teller, secretary of Berkeley High School's Parent Teacher Student Association. "Getting healthy food into schools is really important, not only for the health of the kids, but for their academic achievement. Kids do better if they're well fed."

PTSA President Mark van Krieken said Cooper's lobbying efforts at Capitol Hill are important because the movement for healthier kids lunches will "take on a lot more momentum if the White House and other politicians" are involved. He said he hopes Cooper "continues to be an ambassador" for children's nutrition.

In her lobbying, Cooper has already met with Matthew Yale, deputy chief of staff for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan to discuss how they can better serve the health needs of children.

"I think we're starting to make some headway," said Cooper. "There's a lot of room for optimism."


Contact Melody Ng at [email protected]

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