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Former ‘celebrity chef' researches the kids before reinventing school meals
Ann Cooper gets a tour of Missoula County Public Schools' central kitchen from assistant supervisor Edward Christensen on Friday. Cooper, a celebrity chef turned food and nutrition director for the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District, was in Missoula to talk about ways to put healthier and more sustainable food onto the lunch trays of schoolchildren.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

The day an ABC "Nightline" TV crew arrived to see Ann Cooper's school lunch cafeteria, the kids were going wild over Š persimmon salad?

Another day, Cooper served a whole-grain crust pizza topped with squash, zucchini and corn. The kids sent her a letter bigger than a family dining room table that read, "We hate your pizza."

Finding out what kids will eat and getting adults to cook it for them has been Cooper's two-pronged challenge for the past year in the Berkeley, Calif., public school system. In the process, she's gained nationwide fame as the "renegade lunch lady" on a crusade to rethink what kids eat at school and home.

"I was a white-table-cloth celebrity chef," Cooper told about 30 cooks, dieticians and parents during a visit to Missoula County Public Schools' central kitchen Friday. "I never fed kids. I didn't know what they ate."

But after years campaigning to put more organic, sustainable food in America's restaurants, someone challenged her to do the same thing in its school cafeterias. At first, she worked in small, private or charter schools, where she had both firm control and capable budgets. But last year, Cooper accepted a position as director of food and nutrition in the Berkeley Unified School District.

"Everyone told me I couldn't do what I wanted to do in a public school setting," Cooper told her Missoula audience. "But I've found if the kids help grow it or get to decide what it's going to be - when you empower the kids - you see miraculous things happen."

For the record, the first-graders who went wild on camera for persimmon-and-pomegranate salad had just spent a class period learning about those fruits and how to prepare them. And the kids who went on strike over the peculiar pizza won an audience with the chef. She agreed to change the recipe.

"I just made the sauce with all those veggies in it," she confessed. The whole-wheat crust remained, and the lunch went into the bellies instead of the garbage can.

Winning over the kids is far from the only challenge to remaking school lunch, Cooper warned. Most schools have about half the budget they need to afford fresh and local food. Their cooking staffs are often dependent on prepackaged, reheatable meals and have little experience making lunch from scratch. And although lunch is the highlight of many a child's school day, it's generally overlooked as an educational time.

"It's ridiculous - kids are supposed to eat in 20 minutes," Cooper said. "Not just eat, but get in the cafeteria, pick what they want, eat it and somehow enjoy it. Talk about a teachable moment."

The thoughts rang true with many in the audience. A school cook from Libby told of experimenting with letting kids build their own submarine sandwiches. The kids loved it, but administrators were constantly trying to cut down the number of toppings to speed up the lunch line.

On the other hand, Missoula dietician Laura Del Guerra told of recent taste-test projects her colleagues have run in several city schools. Although she was often warned that baked tofu was a stupid thing to offer, the students voted it No. 1 in two of four schools where it was tried.

"Now I've got parents stopping me in grocery stores," Del Guerra said. "They're saying they've got to buy tofu now because their kids want it."

The biggest obstacle to Cooper's idea is not administrators or kitchen workers or parents. She put the blame on U.S. government food policies that allow giant agricultural corporations to overwhelm small-scale ranchers and farmers. They also fill school lunch programs with over-processed products and use soda and vending machines to market junk food.

Changing that will require new policies at the national level, Cooper said. She called for making school lunch reform part of the 2008 presidential debate.

"You have a brand-new senator who's an organic farmer," Cooper told the Missoula audience. "Tell him we care about the national school lunch program. That's how we get these changes."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

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