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Organic Chef, Educator and 'Renegade Lunch Lady'

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Chef Ann Cooper

In this interview, Chef Ann Cooper explains why she thinks organic is worth it in schools and offers tips on how to make better food in schools a reality.

Q: You are an advocate of organic food and gardens in schools. Why do you feel that it is so important for organic to be available in schools?

AC: Simply put, we can't keep feeding our kids chemicals. We know cancer and other diseases related to exposure to these chemicals are on the rise and we need to take action to embrace a healthier, more sustainable way of eating, living and farming.

Q: You have helped bring organic food to many schools across the country. What has been the key to your success?

AC: The key to my success has been two-fold. First, I have worked with schools that have been committed to effecting change. They knew that improving the quality of food they were serving would be challenging, but they recognized whatever sacrifices were needed to make it happen were well worth it for students' long-term well-being.

Second, wherever I have gone, I have had a lot of support. From parents, the school board, and the community at large. When you have these people behind you and helping you out, you have a much greater chance at achieving your goals.

Q: What advice do you have for parents, teachers, and administrators who are trying to bring organic to their schools?

AC: First and foremost, you have to be willing to pay more for food. Currently, USDA invests only $2.68 on average per day to feed our kids lunch at school. That is simply not enough to cover the cost of what kids really need in terms of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy. That is also why I am calling for an additional dollar to be spent on every child in my new Lunch Box Advocates initiative.

You also need to demand stricter guidelines about how money on school food programs is spent. You want to make sure that those dollars are used to purchase high-quality fresh foods with real nutritional value, not simply a greater variety of low-quality options.

Q: What do you think of First Lady Michelle Obama's new 'Let's Move' program?

AC: This program is a definite step in the right direction. The important thing to remember is that she alone can't solve our country's food problems. We all need to work together to make a change. For our kids: it's worth it.

About Chef Ann Cooper
Chef Ann  Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator, and enduring advocate for better food for all children. In a nation where children are born with shorter estimated life expectancies than their parents because of diet-related illness, Ann is a relentless voice of reform by focusing on the links between food, family, farming and children’s health and wellness.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years including positions with Holland America Cruises, Radisson Hotels, Telluride Ski Resort as well as serving as Executive Chef at the renowned  Putney Inn in Vermont. She has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek , and Time Magazine and  has appeared on NPR’s ‘Living on Earth,’ ABC’s Nightline, CNN, PBS’ To The Contrary and the CBS Morning Show and many other media outlets. Ann has shared her knowledge and experience by speaking at the Smithsonian Institute, the National Restaurant Association, the Heifer Foundation, Chefs Collaborative, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and numerous conferences. She has been honored by SLOW Food USA, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture.  

Ann is the author of four books:  Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (2006), In Mother’s Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes (2005), Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can do About It (2000) and A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs (1998). She is past president of The American Culinary Federation of Central Vermont, and past president and board member of Women's Chefs and Restaurateurs. She also served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board, a Congressional appointment, and was an Executive Committee member of Chefs Collaborative - all in an effort to raise awareness about the value of healthful, seasonal, organic, and regional foods.

Ann’s research for and writing of A Bitter Harvest provided a true epiphany for this always curious and proactive chef.  No longer could the environmental and health facts be ignored when it came to producing food in this country. Ms Cooper’s career shifted from primarily cooking to a path of cooking, writing, and public speaking – all advocacy work for a healthier food system. There is no doubt that Ann is an accomplished chef, however her focus is now on using her skills and background to create a sustainable model for schools nationwide to transition any processed food based K-12 school meal program to a whole foods environment where food is procured regionally and prepared from scratch. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3) as a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box - a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and community connections to support school food reform.

Chef Ann is happily doing the work of three as a Chef, Nutrition Services Director, Consultant, Author, Public Speaker, and Advocate because she sees a need for change and has the gifts to help.  She envisions a time soon when being a chef working to feed children fresh, delicious, and nourishing food will no longer be considered “renegade.”