Get Inspired: Lunchroom Revolution

By Lauren Piscopo

Ann Cooper is on a mission to rid school cafeterias of not just junk food—like soda and potato chips—but also highly processed, so-called “foods” such as chicken nuggets and Tater Tots. At the start of the school year, this former chef turned “renegade lunch lady” set an ambitious goal to put a salad bar in every school in the country. Cooper’s Great American Salad Bar Project raised $1.41 million this fall through a second year partnership with Whole Foods Market Inc., enough money to give away nearly 600 salad bars. With her launch of, this American Jamie Oliver is training other lunch ladies to cook with more real fruits and vegetables rather than nutritionally void and processed foods. Cooper talked to Natural Solutions about the sorry state of school lunches as well as what you can do to change how kids eat.

How did you go from being a fine-dining chef to a lunch lady?
When I was the executive chef at the Putney Inn in Vermont, I wrote Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Danger in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge, 2000). I started to think about what was our wrong with our food supply and why food was making everyone sick, including children. Then I got a call from the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, asking me to be their executive chef. I thought, What? Me, a lunch lady? After a trip to the school cafeteria, I realized I could really make a difference, so I dropped out of the celebrity chef world and became a lunch lady.

How did school lunches become so unhealthy?
After World War II, the National School Lunch Program was started, offering scratch-made foods because processed food didn’t exist. And after the war, there were a lot of peacetime uses of the wartime technologies, like chemicals. The program was then put under the US Department of Agriculture. The government decided to support farmers by buying up surplus crops and putting them into school lunches. So what ended up on kids’ trays was a lot of animal protein, which in small doses is good, but in large doses is not. There was plenty of corn being made into high-fructose corn syrup and soy being made into hydrogenated fats. All of a sudden, we had transformed what was very simple and wholesome—like bread and soup—into highly processed food with a lot of hidden calories and a lot of hidden synthetic chemicals and preservatives.

What’s the most disturbing food you’ve spotted in a cafeteria?
Chicken nuggets, corn dogs, pizza pockets, tater tots, and riblets. It all meets the nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program, but none of it is real food as far as I’m concerned. Did you know that removing high-fructose corn syrup-filled chocolate milk from schools cuts 4 to 6 pounds of sugar from a child’s diet annually?

How are kids reacting to the salad bars you’ve put in schools?
It takes a little bit of training because they’ve grown up in a world where Flamin’ Hot Cheetoes are breakfast. We teach them to eat a rainbow of colors. We teach them about balance and guide them to choose lettuce plus five different options—one being a protein—so the kids aren’t making salads of just carrots and dressing. But kids really love the salad bars because it is the first time they’ve been given a choice, and that's empowering