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Chef Ann Cooper's Toolbox for the School Lunchbox

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

After 30 years as a top chef in some of this country's best restaurants,  Chef Ann Cooper has turned to fighting the obesity epidemic currently plaguing America's children. First she claimed the title of "Renegade Lunch Lady" while running the public school lunch program in Berkeley, Calif. Now, Cooper has embarked on an ambitious program to put healthier food in schools across the nation from her new home base in Boulder, Colo.

The Lunch Box is a web-based portal that enables schools and school districts across America to make a healthy difference for all children by providing relevant information and the pragmatic tools necessary to make good food available. We spoke with Chef Ann Cooper about the new program and the Obama administration's school food proposals.

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AgMag: Chef Ann, explain your lunch box program.

Cooper: The lunchbox healthy tools for all schools we are developing will use resources and materials to assist schools in overcoming the barriers to serving healthy food.

These barriers include where to find the food, the facilities needed to cook healthy food, the retraining required for kitchen workers used to just opening cans, marketing, and how you get kids to eat it.

AgMag: Why the need to concentrate on healthy school lunches?

Cooper: The Center for Disease Control has stated that for the first time in history, American children may face a shorter lifespan than their parents because obesity can lead to many preventable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and asthma.

AgMag: How did your experience with the Berkeley school system inform what you’re doing now?

Cooper: It was great – we were able to understand the ebb and flow of the kitchen and get feedback on the kind of food we serve.

AgMag: How well is the Obama administration handling the school food issue?

Cooper: It’s two different issues -- there’s the administration, and then there’s the First Lady. What the First Lady is doing is wonderful by bringing attention to these serious health concerns. However, there is no big policy move and very little funding. There’s only an extra $1 billion that includes all meals and WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program) -- only pennies added for every child’s lunch.

AgMag: What then in your opinion would be the perfect solution?

Cooper: A dedicated dollar per child and following the National Academy’s Institute of Medicine’s Nutritional Standards for Schools, which call for more fresh foods, vegetables, leafy greens and the lowering of sodium levels.

Schools serve bad food because of the highly subsidized commodity crop program that provides them with cheaper, higher-calorie, higher-fat and higher-sodium food.

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Chef Ann is also on Twitter, and you can follow her @chefannc

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