Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “A Harvest of Health- It’s What’s for Lunch!” was written by Sara Tedeschi for the Fall 2006 edition of Rootstock. Since this article was originally printed, Chef Ann has moved on from the Berkeley Unified School District (leaving delicious school lunches in her wake) to spread the lunchroom change at the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, CO. She is also Partner of Lunch Lessons, LLC, a consultancy for school districts going through large-scale food change. She also writes a monthly blog for U.S. News & World Report and performs regular Speaking Engagements throughout the country.

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What do an organic garden, a teaching kitchen, and a school lunchroom have in common? Together they can contribute to better health and nutrition for America’s children. Three cheers for Chef Ann Cooper and the School Lunch Initiative!

In the fall of 2005, New York celebrity chef Ann Cooper accepted the position (and the challenge) of Director of Nutritional Services of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). Her mission: to develop and implement a comprehensive school lunch and nutrition education program for ALL the public school children in the district, kindergarten through high school. Ann has already been dubbed the “renegade lunch lady” from her work transforming New York’s Ross School lunch program into a model of Regional, Organic, Sustainable, and Seasonal food. Now she faces her greatest challenge—harnessing community support and funding to create a unified school wellness policy within a public school system.

The School Lunch Initiative provides the blueprint in Berkeley, but community members, non-profit organizations, parents,staff, teachers and students at the district’s 16 schools provide the heart and soul, making it happen every day. This grassroots effort stems from a new paradigm in nutrition education, based on the premise (and a growing body of research) that when kids are connected with the source of their food—when they can experience food hands-on from seed to table—they are more likely to choose these same healthful foods in other settings, such as at home and in the school lunchroom. The School Lunch Initiative (along with a growing number of inspired programs around the country) seeks to creatively link comprehensive, curriculum-based school garden and cooking programs with increased healthful menus and choices for children in the school lunchroom. Kids get a chance to grow, prepare and eat good food—at school!

Students in my Classes

So, do these programs work? Are American children, who face an onslaught of fast food marketing resulting in negative health and obesity trends, actually eating more healthfully as a result of the School Lunch Initiative? We don’t yet have the benefit of long-term health studies to answer this question, but perhaps the proof is in the pudding (organic pudding, of course). When Ann Cooper is asked what her greatest accomplishment has been to date on her new quest in Berkeley, she answers simply and without hesitation or elaboration, “The kids are eating the food.” Period.

Sounds good, but hold your applause. What are they eating? The reputation of the average National School Lunch Program menu is one of high fat, refined sugars and highly processed foods that mimic fast foods for familiarity, reinforcing negative diet trends in this country. Given the severe financial constraints of a USDA school lunch program, have Chef Ann and her staff really been able to make a change? Get ready for a standing ovation. During Ann’s first year with BUSD:

  • The program has moved menus from 95% processed foods to 90% foods made from scratch
  • There is now a salad bar in EVERY school
  • All trans fats and high fructose corn syrup have been eradicated from the menus
  • There are NO fried foods served
  • The milk that is now served contains no synthetic hormones
  • Locally produced grass-fed hotdogs and hamburgers have replaced the commodity versions
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are sourced locally, seasonally and organically whenever possible

Goals for the coming year include providing organic milk in the lunchroom. Although the financial reality of this prospect is daunting, Ann Cooper is convinced that this is an important step. “Children drink a lot of milk in school. It has long been a key source of nutrients and calories in our school lunch programs. It is our responsibility to ensure that the milk we supply to school children is the safest and highest quality we can make it.”

And how about the school gardens—do they contribute to the overall success of Ann’s efforts in the lunchroom? When asked this question, Ann replies again without hesitation, “Yes. When kids have the opportunity to experience for themselves their connection to the earth, to the soil, to the beauty of the garden, to the food that they help to make grow there, the hardest work is done. Kids get it. In fact, they love it. I couldn’t do what I do with the lunch program without the educational connection happening through the garden and cooking program. It is an equal partner in this overall effort to turn the tide of childhood nutrition.”

Nurtured by Chef Ann and other dedicated proponents, this collection of programs continues to grow. Melanie Okamoto, California Nutrition Network’s Program Supervisor for the BUSD, proudly explains how the garden component of this multifaceted program provides many educational benefits while it reinforces the healthy foods message for the children. “The school garden coordinators work to interest and involve the academic teachers to enhance their classroom curriculum, and in turn, the garden’s educational reach. Whether through literature, art, math or earth sciences, the learning opportunities inherent in the garden are almost limitless.”

Perhaps most important, however, is the connection made from the garden to the kitchen classroom and then to the lunchroom. The fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and other garden goodies that students plant, produce, and harvest get integrated into lesson plans in kitchen classrooms. There the children transform their harvest into dishes to taste and share, doubling their sense of team work and accomplishment. Not only can they grow it, they can cook it too! With the blessing of the students’ approving taste buds, these same foods and recipes move to the food service and lunch program menu, where the children put it all into action – they eat it!

Chef Ann Cooper, Courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation

Chef Ann Cooper, Courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation

Clearly, Ann Cooper and the School Lunch Initiative are making a tremendous amount of progress toward improving child nutrition in the schools. This holistic approach—teaching the next generation to care about the source of their food, the health of their bodies, and their connection to the health of the earth—is something we can ALL cheer about.