Cooking Revolution

Amid the piles of broccoli, the stacks of sweet potato fries, and a gigantic pot of pasta sauce, Ann Cooper is an unlikely general, waging a daily war against junk food.

Her field of operations?

The Berkeley, Calif., Unified Public Schools' kitchens and cafeterias, where she's trying to change how school children eat, one serving at a time.

And although her staff of 55 food service workers is determined, they are woefully ill-equipped.

Cooking Without a Stove

"I don't have a stove," Cooper laments. "I'm cooking 2,000 lunches a day, I don't have a stove."

A kitchen with no stove is the result of years of cutbacks to federal programs that provide food for K-12 graders. Like many public school cafeterias, Berkeley suffered from a lack of funds. As a result, the kitchens abandoned cooking in favor of pre-made, pre-packaged food that only needed to be heated and served.

"We as adults have to understand that what we feed our children and what we teach them about food is actually killing them," Ann Cooper said. "I mean that's what we're talking about: the next generation that's going to die at a younger age than their parents ... we're talking about a world that's going to have 40 to 50 percent of the children having diabetes."

Cooper aims to bring about what could be considered a revolution in public school kitchens: serving fresh, nutritious food made from scratch. That means 4,000 lunches, 2,000 breakfasts and 2,000 snacks every school day.

Look out lunch ladies, there's a new chef in town.

A Web of Red Tape, a Preference for Fast Food

Cooper faces a host of worthy adversaries, from an entrenched bureaucracy to a fast-paced society that values the speed and convenience of fast food.

"The USDA would much rather you open a can of peaches in high fructose corn syrup than have a farmer call and tell you they have peaches," Cooper explained during a presentation to the San Francisco Food Society. "It makes them really nervous when you serve food."

The USDA, or U.S. Department of Agriculture, subsidizes farmers and ends up with too much of crops like corn and soy. In turn that corn can often show up in schools as high fructose corn syrup in sodas and canned peaches. And these processed foods dominate menus in school cafeterias because they are cheap and convenient, even if they aren't necessarily healthy.

"All that excess food that's not necessarily healthy ends up getting pushed onto our kids' plate," Cooper said.

Which is why cooking meals from scratch is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

But perhaps the bigger concern, will the children eat the new food?

Tough Customers

The kids and their finely honed taste buds can put up some of the fiercest resistance.

"All I get is 'I'm hungry,' and I just key into that," says Nancy Williams, whose son Antoine attends elementary school in the district. "It's like, 'Well, you didn't eat lunch?' And it's like, 'No, they had some nasty stuff, I didn't like it.'"

The ugliest battle so far: the great pizza uprising, which culminated in a butcher paper petition signed by hundreds of students protesting the chopped veggies with low-fat mozzarella on a whole-wheat and spelt crust.

"'We have a few complaints,'" Cooper said, reading from the letter the students sent to her in protest.

Despite the complaints, however, Cooper was actually pleased. She was happy that the students were thinking enough about their school lunch that they would ask her to make changes.

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