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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Upgrading School Food - Chef Ann Cooper Helps Kids Eat Right

by Ellen Mahoney

Called the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann Cooper is helping change the world one healthy food at a time. The author of books such as Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed our Children and In Mother’s Kitchen, she’s championed sound youth nutrition since 1999. After upgrading menus in several New York and California schools, she moved to Colorado, where she directs nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District, bringing smarter and healthier school lunches to its 28,000-strong student body.

When it comes to healthy lifelong nutrition, what are the three biggest mistakes young people make?

In general, I would say the three biggest mistakes are drinking their calories—not understanding how many calories are in sodas, eating way too much sugar in general, and not eating enough colorful fruits and vegetables.

What are the consequences of poor nutrition?

Poor nutrition means overall poor health that results in diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. Too often, young people eat a diet of highly processed foods with high percentages of fat, salt and refined sugar (as well as dyes and additives) and it absolutely, unequivocally causes disease. It’s an acknowledged fact that poor nutrition is literally killing our kids.

How receptive are school systems to improving student menu plans

I think it’s all over the board; some school systems try hard and are doing a really good job and some are not. The toughest part is garnering community support for change.

Specifically, I’ve encountered five big challenges when it comes to upgrading to healthier options. They are food, where we are going to get it; finance, how will we pay for it; facility, what we can do if a school doesn’t even have a stove; human resources, how we train onsite staff; and marketing, how we get students to eat healthier food.

Schools often see themselves as being in the business of education, but often don’t see the correlation between good food and academic performance. People really do need to understand the truth of the adage, “You are what you eat.” If we don’t help change young people’s relationship to food and do it soon, we’re likely to see the Centers for Disease Control prognostication come true, as well: “Some studies indicate that children born in 2000 may die at a younger age than their parents, because of the food they eat.”

There isn’t anything more important than feeding our kids healthy foods, starting today.

What are the most successful changes you’ve made in your school district?

We got rid of all of the processed foods and have no high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats in our menus. We serve fruits and vegetables every day and have salad bars in every school. We also serve organic milk and abide by a quota of having at least 51 percent of whole grains in our baked products. All of our food is cooked from scratch.

I think that schoolyard gardens are also important. Involving our young people in growing food is a way for them to become part of the food system and learn to have a healthy relationship with food.

What are the biggest or most persistent challenges you’ve encountered?

Getting kids to eat right is the key hurdle. We provide a tremendous amount of education to help students learn how, with programs ranging from tastings to iron chef competitions. I regularly attend PTA meetings, show up in school cafeterias and meet with parents. Some of the kids love our food and some don’t, but we’re moving along in the right direction.

What can parents do to help?

Parents need to make healthy food a priority in their families. If we want to change our children’s relationship with food, we have to shop with them, cook with them and sit down and eat with them.

If humanity could start all over again with a sustainable and healthy food system, what might that look like? At one time, when we were an agricultural economy, this country did have a sustainable food system; by and large we grew the food we ate. But it changed when we became a mechanized society, especially after World War II, when wartime technologies led to developments in refrigeration and advances in transportation

A truly sustainable food system must have a triple bottom line of healthy foods, healthy kids and a healthy planet. One way to create a more sustainable food system is to find our way back to the kitchen again… and cook.

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Ellen Mahoney is a freelance writer in Boulder, CO. Connect at [email protected].

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