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Chef Ann Cooper is known as the Renegade Lunch Lady because she had the crazy idea that kids should be eating healthful, nourishing, natural foods in their school cafeterias, rather than the processed, chemical-laden foods we so often see. A celebrated chef, author, educator and food advocate, she has helped transform lunchrooms in the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado as well as the Berkeley Unified School District in California, incorporating fresh, natural and local foods into not only the lunchroom, but the curriculum, too.
"We have numerous 'masters' in our menu creation," Cooper says. She has to consider, "What kids will eat, what parents want them to eat, what the USDA guidelines say we can serve, what our extremely limited budget will allow, and what we believe kids should be eating." That's a lot to consider when planning even a single meal, but Cooper is planning a meal for every day of the school year. She also considers the seasonality and sustainability of the foods she is feeding hundreds of hungry school children. It's a mouthful, no matter how you look at it.
"We need to change children's relationship to food, and in doing so, they'll hopefully change their own children's," Cooper says. "It all goes back to the triple bottom line: People, planet, profit." With that mantra in mind, Cooper says, "No farmers no food is an old adage, but it really is true. We need to support all of the people who are working so hard to help us feed or kids healthy food."
Luckily, she has some help. "Our community has been incredibly supportive," Cooper says. "We have more than 175 volunteers who help us with student education in our cafeterias and gardens, and we also do numerous community events over the course of the year." A lot of these events take place in conjunction with Cooper's nonprofit organization, the Food Family Farming Foundation. The foundation's mission is to provide tools that enable all schools, parents, advocates, students, administrators, teachers and food service staff to progress from serving highly processed, unhealthy food to serving fresh, from-scratch food. And it's working! Earlier this month, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) recognized Cooper's pioneering efforts with their distinguished Humanitarian of the Year Award.
Cooper is used to feeding hundreds of hungry kids at a single sitting, and she has translated that into some key tips for home chefs. Just because you don't have quite as many mouths to feed, doesn't mean you can't learn something from this celebrated lunch lady!
"First, really taste your food!" Cooper says. "I know it sounds simple, but it's true—taste everything. Then enhance the delicious flavors of the food and don't overshadow them. Keep it simple; there's really nothing like a perfectly ripe tomato with salt or a touch of extra virgin olive oil." In fact, extra virgin olive oil, good salt, basalmic vinegar and fresh ground pepper are some of Cooper's favorite home pantry staples that can enhance any dish.
Another great tip? Cooper suggests that you "buy seasonally and buy for flavor, not looks." Chances are, those perfect-looking peaches at the grocery store are going to be green and hard as a rock, while the more charmingly irregular ones you might find at your farmers market will taste like pure gold.
Finally, Cooper reminds us to watch what goes into our cart—because that's what will go into our bellies. "Fill your cart with whole foods and stay out of the inner aisles," she says. "Buy: fresh fruit, fresh veggies, whole grains and healthy proteins." You can hardly go wrong with a prescription like that.
As an educator and food advocate, Cooper hopes that her work will bring a new generation of kids and their parents back to fresh, whole foods that are produced locally and support their local food community. She envisions a time soon when being a chef working to feed children fresh, delicious and nourishing food will no longer be considered "renegade."
Organic Authority would like to thank Ann Cooper and all of the sustainable, organic farmers and chefs whose work is providing healthy food for us all to eat. We honor you as being conscious stewards of our planet. And, we are thrilled to have you participating in our Earth Day event!
images: Kirsten Boyer Photography