Healthy School Lunch Crusade Goes Online

September 22, 2009 05:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Chef Ann Cooper is leading the movement for healthier school lunches, launching a Web site devoted to the cause and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Schools Have a Chef on Their Side

Ann Cooper has teamed with Whole Foods to launch The Lunch Box, a Web site for those seeking healthier, more affordable lunches. Currently in beta mode, the site is specifically geared to parents, cooks and school administrators, according to Chicago Tribune food writer Monica Eng. Once it is fully functioning, The Lunch Box will feature suggested menus, nutritional and financial guidance, and resources for nutrition professionals and home cooks.

The magic ingredient is Cooper, known for her transformational work in Berkeley, Calif., school cafeterias. She travels to Washington this month to lobby for improved school lunches amid congressional debate over the Child Nutrition Act, which expires later this year. In an interview with Eng, Cooper explained that her ultimate goal is not "to be the renegade lunch lady," but to convince the government to support and fund better school nutrition, resulting in a sustainable project.

Cooper's experience includes owning and working in six different restaurants, in addition to directing school food programs in California, New York and her current post in Boulder Valley, Colo., according to The Washington Post. She is tackling the issues on a large scale: lobbying the Obama administration to increase "per-meal reimbursement" to schools, ban trans fats from school lunches and promote locally sourced ingredients in school lunches. She hopes to establish training programs for cafeteria staffers that are now "hired just to heat up packaged food."

Perhaps most importantly, Cooper insists that food and nutrition are intrinsic to a quality educational experience, and believes healthy food should not be a financial burden for parents. "Kids don't just learn math and history and science at school," Cooper said in an interview with Grist's Tom Philpott in January 2007. "They also learn how to eat, how to take care of themselves. ... Food needs to be seen as part of the curriculum."

Listen to Chef Cooper's podcasts, which are available on her Web site and cover various nutrition, agricultural and school lunch issues.

Background: National School Lunch Program; Child Nutrition Act

The National School Lunch Program has been in effect since the 1940s, and was created with students in the armed services in mind, according to ABC NewsChannel 8. Today, millions of families rely on the program to provide daily school lunches to their children. But schools are struggling "to provide high quality ingredients within very limited budgets," Dora Rivas, president of the nonprofit School Nutrition Association and executive director of Nutrition Services for Dallas Independent Schools, told NewsChannel 8.

Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program receive cash subsidies and other donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal served. The lunches must meet federal nutrition requirements, and the school must offer free or reduced lunches to qualified children. The program's "farm-to-school" initiative has been up and running since 1997, and connects small farms to school cafeterias, and is "based on the cooperation of Federal, State, and local governments," according to documents available for downloading on the National School Lunch Program Web site.

Though the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program are "permanently authorized," according to the School Nutrition Association, every five years, certain child nutrition programs are subject to changes and revisions. The Child Nutrition Act expires on Sept. 30, 2009.

Related Topics: School gardens; Schools and weight gain

Student-run school gardens are growing in popularity, providing environmental benefits and encouraging students to lead healthier lives. The Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans is just one of many schools across the country implementing garden programs that allow students to harvest fruits and vegetables for cafeteria meals. Today, chef, restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters is a leader in the school garden movement. Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation started both The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif., and the garden program at Green Charter School in New Orleans. Similar programs are slated for Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Greensboro, S.C., and Pittsburgh.

An experiment in Philadelphia has shown that schools can play a pivotal role in preventing childhood obesity. During a two-year study, lunchrooms and vending machines were stocked with healthy foods and teachers integrated nutritional education into their lesson plans. In the end, they found that kids in grades 4-6 were half as likely to become overweight when the school helped out.

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