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Q&A with the ‘renegade lunch lady’

As Need to Know reports this week, childhood obesity is a staggering problem in the U.S., with CDC stats putting the number of obese children (2-19) in America at nearly 12.5 million.

In 2010, the President Barack Obama passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to combat the country’s high obesity rates among children. Under the new laws, the National School Lunch Program — a service that provides reduced or no-cost meals to 32 million kids in public and non-profit private schools across the nation — will dramatically change the foods that are served in schools.

Chef Ann Cooper, a former celebrity chef turned school nutritionist, has been at the forefront of the national debate on school lunches, as an advocate for healthier options since 1999. Need to Know spoke with Cooper to find out more about her take on combating obesity in schools.

Ann Cooper. Photo: Kirsten Boyer

You have years of experience as a chef and dietician working in a school setting, but what makes you the “renegade lunch lady”?

Ann: That term or the nickname “renegade lunch lady” was a quip that somebody in the press said. When I first got into school food, I’d been a white tablecloth sort of celebrity chef for quite some time. When I dropped out and said — I’m not a chef anymore I’m a lunch lady — one of the press corps said, ‘Well if you’re a lunch lady, you’re a renegade lunch lady.” And it stuck 15 years later.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, marking the first major overhaul of the national rules on school lunches in 15 years. What changes can we expect to see on school menus come September?

Ann: It’s so complicated what’s happening. The biggest change is more fresh fruits and vegetables and 51 percent whole grains… There’s also a maximum [amount of] calories and proteins and grains so that means that hamburgers will be smaller, rolls will be smaller, tortillas will be smaller, the amount of protein in items will be less — and that’s all making way for more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Unhealthy school lunches are linked to childhood obesity. Why did it take 15 years to implement major changes? Shouldn’t it be easy for parents to go up to a school to demand better food and menu choices for their children?

Ann: Everybody has an opinion about food… They have an opinion about what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, what they like, what they don’t like, what they grew up with, what feels comfortable to them, all kinds of things. So, one parent might say, “I want roast chicken and not chicken nuggets,” and the next parent might say, “I only want chicken nuggets.” So it’s a complicated situation.

Big business spent 17 to 20 billion dollars a year marketing non-nutrient foods to kids. Big corporations stand to lose tons and tons of money if we change the way we deal with processed foods in school. So, I think that there is politics and finances at play here that really have negatively impacted what’s on our kid’s plates.

Can you give us an example of how lobbyists have influenced the changes being made?

Ann: The initial USDA guideline said that you could only serve potatoes — half a cup of potatoes — twice a week. And big business started lobbying, and Congress took that out of the law so that now you can serve potatoes as a vegetable every single day. So basically, French fries could be counted as a vegetable every single day of the week.

In the original law before the change — and this was because of the pizza, frozen food and tomato lobby — a quarter cup of tomato paste would be considered a vegetable. So pizza could count as a vegetable. And with the new USDA guidelines, that was taken out. So we couldn’t count pizza as a vegetable anymore. And then the pizza, frozen food and tomato lobby got Congress involved… and pizza is back to being a vegetable. I mean those kinds of things are really antithetical to the health of our children. It’s all about corporate profit and it’s unconscionable that that’s a part of the food system for our kids.

Is there anything that you would have like to have seen in the new law?

Ann: I think we should eliminate high fructose corn syrup. I think we should eliminate processed chemicals, colors and dyes. But, you know, we’ve taken a big step. So, let’s get this one under our belt and we’ll go from there.

Critics of the act feel the government should not dictate the kinds of foods that we put into our bodies. Is it the role of government to dictate what our kids eat in schools?

Ann: I think it’s the role of government to take care of its citizens and also to take care of the financial stability of the country. And our very broken insurance and medical system is about to crater because of the obesity and diabetes crisis that’s coming at us. If we don’t fix that, if we don’t change the way our children eat, then we’re going to see them dying at a younger age… I think that the government absolutely should be helping its citizens take care of themselves and this is a very positive step.

Earlier this year, news broke about school districts buying ammonia-treated beef, aka “pink slime,” for school lunches. Should parents still be concerned about what schools are serving?

Ann: I think parents should always be concerned about what schools are serving. And I think that they should become knowledgeable about it, understand what the issues are, and eat school lunch with their kids, and really start to see what the food is, and how they feel about it, and how it could be better.

Is it as easy to document and be critical about what our kids are eating at school? There have been cases where teachers and students did just that and they were on the receiving end of backlash from school administrators.

Ann: If parents really want to change the system, they also have to work with the system. So if parents want to change what their kids are eating, first they have to look at the wellness policy. Every district has one.

… They have to go in and eat lunch at their kid’s school and get like-minded parents to go in as well. They have to go to the school board — which is where all change happens — and lobby the school board to start to make changes. And they also should be going in to try to support the food services and nutrition services directors in trying to make change.

Now whether administrators should push back or not, I think it’s a natural phenomenon that if people are criticized for what they are doing, that there is some kind of push back. But, I think we’re seeing positive change. I think the new USDA guidelines are positive change. I think that Michelle Obama being a cheerleader for all this has also helped change happen.

What more can parents, schools and the government do to ensure children are eating healthy foods and that childhood obesity doesn’t continue to be a problem?

Ann: One of the things that government can do is crack down on advertising to kids. If we stopped advertising junk foods to kids, it would be a lot easier for parents to help their kids learn to eat healthier foods. So that would be a huge thing from the government standpoint.

I think that parents from the home standpoint need to shut off the TV. That’s probably one of the biggest things you can do to get your kids to eat better foods. Shut the TV off, go shopping with your kids, grow foods with your kids, sit down and eat with your kids, make food and dining together and dinner really part of the core values of the family and then, things will start to change.

If we don’t teach our children about food, McDonald’s and Burger King are going to. And as far as the schools are concerned, schools can just decide to serve meals that are mostly fresh vegetables, whole grains and proteins and get rid of all the processed foods.