Lunch lessons 

Ann Cooper’s new vision for school food

When chef Ann Cooper visited the Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) central kitchen last week, she didn’t wait to be assigned a tour guide before taking a look around. The woman who calls herself the “Renegade Lunch Lady” quickly surveyed the small crowd waiting to hear her speak at an ensuing presentation, and then set off on a self-guided exploration of the cavernous space next to the Jefferson Fine Arts building where MCPS staff prepare 2,850 meals each school day of the year.

Being ahead of the crowd is nothing new for Cooper. She’s been working since the beginning of the decade to transform school cafeteria fare from an amalgam of pre-processed and reheated surplus commodities into model meals of fresh, local and nutritious food designed to equip children for a lifetime of healthy eating. Cooper hopes to thereby help reduce soaring childhood obesity rates and the attendant health consequences.

Cooper began her quest in the tony confines of an ecocentric private school on New York’s Long Island. She crafted a mantra—“regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable”—to guide menu selection and sent students to harvest the raw materials of their meals under the tutelage of a local farmer. Later, she worked as a consultant to New York City public schools, eventually moving to the Chez Panisse Foundation, which subsidizes her current position as the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District. From that post, Cooper is implementing the School Lunch Initiative, a collaborative pilot program for school food that prioritizes health over expedience.

One way to implement such a priority shift in Missoula, Cooper proposes, is to use the central kitchen to process produce purchased in season—when it’s fresh, abundant and cheapest, and when classes are out. (The kitchen is currently closed during the off-season.) It’s one of several notions she presents in Missoula that run counter to prevailing practice, but that seem like simple common sense to Cooper, who has spent her career preparing gourmet food with fresh ingredients. Getting schools to preserve fresh food during the summer, however, would require a systemic rethinking of the process, since most schools have neither the kitchen equipment and staff to process raw produce nor the budget to make such changes.

Cooper’s Missoula audience, comprising representatives of at least five western Montana school districts, is receptive to her ideas, and many express solidarity with her desire to use local produce, replace corn syrup calories with fresh fruits and bring instruction about farming, food preparation and nutrition into school curricula so children can gain the understanding necessary to make healthy choices. Audience members echo Cooper’s frustration with school budgets that allocate less than a dollar per child per meal for food costs, forcing schools to accept grants of surplus commodity food to make ends meet.

Cooper’s advocacy—and a reputation bolstered by her latest book, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, as well as a recent favorable profile in The New Yorker—is an inspiration, says Ariel Bleth, a local woman working on some of the same issues locally. Bleth heads up the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition’s Farm to School program, which coordinates with MCPS to incorporate local farm products into school menus.

But changing school food isn’t a simple matter of converting staff to a different way of thinking. The federal school lunch program is rife with regulations that limit flexibility, including rules requiring fixed recipes, effectively disallowing the improvisation that a chef relying on regional and seasonal ingredients must rely on. The penalty for noncompliance is loss of federal funding—a prospect that already-lean school food programs can’t afford. So while Bleth sees encouragement in Cooper’s example, MCPS Assistant Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Ed Christensen is more interested in adopting actual tools developed by Cooper for working within the existing system. Christensen, who oversees MCPS’ central kitchen, refers specifically to a recipe database Cooper is developing that will allow him to generate menus compatible with the federally mandated requirements for reimbursement.

Speaking of the full sweep of Cooper’s project, Christensen says, “What she’s doing is visionary…but implementing those things will take a lot of rethinking.”

Some rethinking has already been done, Christensen says, including a change in the USDA commodity program this year that allows him, for the first time, to choose which items he wants and which he doesn’t from available supplies. But further flexibility would be even more helpful, he says, pointing to a Department of Defense program that supplies him with produce but requires him to get it from fixed suppliers in faraway locales. “I would rather have a lump sum,” Christensen says, “and we could use that locally or for vendors of choice.”

Christensen and Bleth both note work being done by the nutrition subcommittee of the MCPS Wellness Leadership Council as a beneficial local approach to improving school nutrition. The subcommittee just finished developing guidelines for K-8 meals that, in draft form, call for increasing fresh fruit and vegetable offerings, reducing sodium content and eliminating trans fats and corn syrup whenever possible. If approved, the guidelines would move MCPS further toward the vision Cooper advocates.

Still, Bleth acknowledges that the question of implementation is as much a matter of means as will. “I think [MCPS] is moving in a good direction, but they can’t just make these changes. It really does boil down to getting more money.”

Getting that money will require action upstream from MCPS’ kitchen and boardroom, in the language of the federal agriculture bill that funds school food. Cooper advocates even more drastic structural change: moving the school food program out of the Department of Agriculture and into the Department of Health and Human Services. Making her case at the federal level is part of Cooper’s plan, and it’s how she concludes her presentation in Missoula and, one gets the feeling, everywhere: “I want school lunch,” she says, “to be an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.”

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