Meet the “Renegade Lunch Lady.”
Chef Ann Cooper is an internationally recognized author, chef, educator, public speaker, and advocate of healthy food for all children. She also happens to be the Director of Food Services for the Boulder Valley School District here in Colorado, where my son is soon to be a first grader.
This fact gives me the right to have official "groupie" status, as I have been a huge fan and admirer of Chef Ann’s work since she first spoke to my Rotary club followed by an opportunity I had to see her speak at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. She is helping parents turn kids into foodies.
Chef Ann not only works with BVSD’s School Food Project, but she is also the founder of the Chef Ann Foundation, which is a national force to improve childhood nutrition. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has performed four TED talks throughout her extensive speaking engagements.
Chef Ann was gracious enough to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule to talk with The Digest, and it’s easy to see how her drive and passion have helped her knock down school nutrition barriers.
The Digest: Can you start by telling us a little bit about the Chef Ann Foundation?
Chef Ann: The Chef Ann Foundation works nationwide. We’re working with 9,000 schools in every state in the country. We’re touching three million kids, and it’s really about supporting schools to serve healthy, scratch-cooked food to get kids eating better.
The Digest: What are the roadblocks? What are some of the challenges districts are facing?
Chef Ann: All school districts are facing five main things. The five big issues are food, finance, facilities, human resources, and marketing. Food: How do we get it and make sure it’s good? Finance: How do we pay for it and make sure we can support it sustainably? Facilities: What do you do if you don’t have kitchens or need better kitchens? Human resources: How and where do we get staff, and how do we get them trained? And finally, marketing: I mean if you do everything else right, how do you get the kids to eat it?
You know, those are big challenges. It’s challenges we have worked on and continue to work on here in Boulder, but they're challenges all school districts have.
The Digest: Let’s talk about a few of these in more detail. Labor. What are the big challenges with labor?
Chef Ann: I was listening to NPR this morning, and there was a story about a bakery in Denver that just had to close because they couldn’t find enough staff. There just aren’t people to work. And my friends that have restaurants, my chef friends, are saying the same thing, and it’s true in schools as well.
So you know unemployment nationwide is under four percent. Unemployment in Colorado is under three percent. There’s no one to work. We have, nationally, a ridiculous immigration policy, and people who always work in foodservice — in every aspect of foodservice, especially entry-level — have always been immigrants. And now we don’t have them.
Farms are dealing with the same issue, so there aren’t people to work, and what industry can pay is so much more than what schools can pay. So when you’ve got McDonald’s, Burger King, and now Target saying they’re going to have a $15 entry-level wage, there’s just no such thing in school food. So it’s very, very difficult.
The Digest: What about the equipment side of the kitchen? Is there equipment that can actually help mitigate the labor side of it? Would automated equipment ever be in the future for school foodservice?
Chef Ann: Yeah. As a matter of fact, Boulder Valley School District, right now, we’re just embarking on building a central kitchen to be able to be more efficient and to be able to cook more with less, and I think there are technologies. That doesn’t mean we’re replacing employees, that we’re never going to have employees again, but that people will be working differently and potentially we will need less people to do the work that we do. I think technology and equipment are definitely things we can look forward to.
The Digest: What about the tastes that kids have? How have their preferences changed? Have you seen that over the last five years, ten years, 15 years? And how has preference changed with demographics? When I was a kid, it was hamburgers and mac-n-cheese. Today, you have Indian dishes and Latin dishes on your menu. Has that been a driving factor for you guys?
Chef Ann: Yes and no. You know, a lot of children across the country are growing up with fast food as their basis. Now that, in many ways, is different in Boulder, but Boulder Valley School District is 550 square miles. It goes from Westminster to Nederland, so there’s definitely some fast food out there, but I think that our job is to really teach kids. It’s not enough to just make good food to put on their plate, it’s teaching them.
Here in Boulder Valley we do 200 events a year, working with kids, educating kids. We do rainbow days and tastings and Iron Chef competitions, Taste of BVSD, and we work really hard to teach kids what real food tastes like and why they should be eating it. There just needs to be an educational component.
The Digest: Do you think the era of the celebrity chef has made food more popular and fun for kids?
Chef Ann: I think it’s good and bad. In fact, they were talking about the NPR story this morning. Once TV and all of these food shows came into being and chefs became celebrities, then everybody thought, I want to be a chef. I’m going to culinary school to be a chef. But 18 months of culinary school doesn’t a chef make, and now you’ve got kids coming out of culinary school that think they’re going to be on Top Chef a week later.
We may have gotten kids to think of food in a different way, but if you think of Chopped, and the secret ingredient could be sprinkles or Cocoa Puffs, so some of the food isn’t real food either. It’s crazy stuff. So I think it’s good and bad.
The Digest: What about allergies? How have they been a factor in what you’ve tried to do?
Chef Ann: We definitely deal with allergies, every school district does. We try to put little icons on the menu for things that are gluten free, and we have an entire allergen list of every single menu item and every allergen in it on our website. Parents can join an allergen list serve so that if anything changes from the listed menu, they know right away. So we really try to work with parents.
We’re peanut free in K-5, so families know that. My philosophy is you have to really do everything you can to care for kids with allergies when they’re really young, and as they get older, help them manage their allergies because nobody lives in a bubble.
The Digest: What do you think is causing all the allergies? Are we just diagnosing them more, or is it chemicals in our food?
Chef Ann: You know, I think that something like peanut allergies, when I was a kid, nobody had peanut allergies, as opposed to everyone has them now. And I think some of it is what we’ve done to the food. I mean, the ubiquitous chemicals in our food supply, ubiquitous GMOs, and all of these things we’ve done to the food have really put us in a place where I think peoples' immune systems aren’t as good as they used to be.
I can remember as a kid when we made and ate mud pies. Now parents are phobic if their kids are dirty. Everyone runs around with hand sanitizer. We don’t get little bits of sick, which keeps us from getting a lot sick, and I think part of the rise in allergies is really the processed food and what we’ve done to the food.
The Digest: What about ways we can encourage our kids to eat better? Are there tricks to the trade to get kids interested in what they’re eating?
Chef Ann: I think that one of the things we see a lot, like with middle school kids, we have been working with them on the environment and being green and waste reduction and pollutants. They’re really interested in the environment. And with high school kids, there really are a lot of them into health. So with little kids it’s about tastings, with older kids it seems to be about connecting with them where they are.
With the middle school Iron Chef competition, the food they come up with is unbelievable, and the winning recipe — or sometimes more than one recipe — actually make it on our menu the following year. We really have to touch them where they are, meet them where they are.
The Digest: How often do you still make it in the kitchen?
Chef Ann: I’m out at the schools during the school year at least a couple days a week, sometimes more.
The Digest: Do you ever miss just being behind a burner or over a kettle?
Chef Ann: I get to go out and go into the production kitchen fairly often, so I wouldn’t say that I am that removed from it, but sometimes it’s nice to just do nothing but cook.
The Digest: So how can someone help out with the Chef Ann Foundation? Or what if someone wants to do their own small part to help promote healthy eating and the exploration of food in our kids?
Chef Ann: If there are people in Boulder who are looking to work on food in the school district locally, they should just get in touch with us because there are lots of volunteer opportunities. You can go right to the ChefAnnFoundation.org website, and there’s lots of opportunity to support the organization in your respective local communities or on a national level. There are lots of ways to connect and support.