DVC, Nutrition Advocate Chef Cooper Urges Students to Educate as Well as Cook

Ann Cooper PVD 170x150Chef Ann Cooper, CEC, director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley Unified School District, was recently honored as a Distinguished Visiting Chef by the College of Culinary Arts.

Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Cooper is a tireless advocate for reforming school lunch programs nationwide. From her hands-on involvement in the Berkeley program to her healthy cookbooks and advocacy work, all of her efforts center on educating the public about making smart food choices.

An unassuming, compact woman with a no-nonsense attitude and seemingly endless reserves of energy, she began her hour-long talk and cooking demonstration by telling us that she was “the unlikeliest candidate for a school career in America.”

A graduate of CIA, she spent the bulk of her career in fine dining, “white tablecloth places.” In Telluride, Colo., she catered huge parties at local film and music festivals, serving rock stars, celebrities and politicians along the way.

Then Chef Cooper received a call that would change the course of her career. The Ross School, a progressive elementary school in East Hampton, NY, needed an equally enlightened cafeteria. At first, she balked. But she finally accepted the position. At Ross, she had the budget and the freedom to make haute yet healthy food, like celery-root soup, green gazpacho and Caprese salad. The students — and the adults — loved it.

Reforming the Berkeley lunch program has been more of an uphill battle. When she started in the district, processed and microwaved foods were the norm. The kitchen staff had little knowledge of prepping and cooking mass quantities of food. The central kitchen had no walk-in and no oven — only microwaves. Change came slowly, from upgrading equipment to training the staff and replacing processed foods with fresh.

Today, the lunch menu in Berkeley contains no processed or fried foods and no corn syrup. (And no chocolate milk either — Chef Cooper calls it “soda in drag.”) The food is all fresh and prepared daily. The salad bar features vegan dressings, proteins and plenty of veggies. She also oversees the school’s cooking and gardening classes, as well as composting and recycling programs.

In addition to crafting menus, planting gardens and mixing up 300-pound batches of meatloaf, Cooper and her staff have become, out of necessity, nutrition and budget experts. Lunch subsidies bring in a budget of $2.59 for each child every day. After overhead and payroll, that leaves $1.00 to create a nutritious, delicious 750-calorie meal.

Impossible? Not quite. Cooper has used some clever tactics to bring her food in on budget. Where possible, she’s kept her providers local, partnering with farmers, catering companies and bakeries to tailor-make foods with the right portion sizes and nutrition profiles for her menus. She’s also been careful to keep her menus seasonal, which cuts down on the carbon footprint and means the food is fresher. 

So far, her model has been adopted in Baltimore, Md., New Haven, Conn., and Boulder, Colo. While this has been gratifying, she recognizes that there is more work to be done.

Her message to future chefs? Educate yourselves. Learn about proper nutrition. Fat does not necessarily equal flavor. She appealed to the students to educate the public as well as cook. “We need to make people understand the symbiotic relationship between food and health. Wellness must be a core value of education.”