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.

After meeting with them, Cooper did exactly that and changed the pizza. The elementary students are happier now.

Long Hours in the Kitchen

Revolutionizing school lunches is hard work. Cooper wakes at 3:30 in morning, and arrives at the kitchen by 5 o'clock. She then puts in grueling 10-hour days that on some occasions extend late into the evening at PTA meetings.

And while she looks and acts like a chef, she often sounds like a political activist.

"Seven billion dollars for school food. Seven. That's all," Cooper said. "We spend 50 billion on diet ads, 120 billion on diet related illnesses and the war is costing us between $3 billion and $5 billion a week. If we took three weeks off the war we could double what we spend on kids' health for an entire year by feeding them better food."

Cooking Time

That fiery rhetoric springs from the heart of a rebel. Cooper herself dropped out of high school and drifted as a teenager until she landed her first job in a kitchen in Telluride, Colo. Something clicked and she found her passion.

She went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Over more than three decades as a chef, she catered banquets for 20,000 people, cooked on cruise ships and served as chef for the rich and famous, from Hillary Clinton to the Grateful Dead.

For Cooper, cooking has always been a great career. But now, it's a calling.

"I'm not a chef anymore, I'm a lunch lady and that's a good thing," Cooper said. "I want to bring a real professional look and feel and attitude to the people who are serving kids food."

And what makes this food different from what she used to cook?

"This is the most important food I could be making," she said. "I'm very proud of it."

A Battle for Resources, and Against Fast Food

Another obstacle for Cooper is that she has very little money -- roughly three-and-a-half dollars a day per child for breakfast and lunch. And 60 percent of that goes to labor and overhead.

"You're left with, at best case, with 60 cents to serve a nutritious, delicious meal to a kid of about 600 calories," Cooper explained. "That's why we have such, you know, bad food in most schools. Because there's so little money and we need to change it. It's a policy issue."

That's what brought her to Berkeley. Her salary is paid by the Chez Panisse Foundation, started by legendary chef Alice Waters. Waters' foundation is dedicated to teaching kids about healthy food -- from the garden to the lunch tray.

Another formidable "opponent" in Cooper's campaign is the cheap, fast and easy food just blocks away from the Berkeley Public High School. It's a fast food mecca with stores like McDonald's and Domino's Pizza that lure high school students who do not even consider eating in the cafeteria as an option.

"There are a ton of kids who that go to McDonald's," said high school student Natalie McClendon.

Students like Paul Moktan, who said cafeteria food tasted "heck of nasty," and when ABC News met him, was in search of pizza at Domino's or some Chinese food.

Good Intentions Gone Awry

Finally, there are parents who think they've been doing the right thing by giving their kids stuff like chocolate milk.

"As far as I'm concerned, chocolate milk is soda in drag," Cooper says. "Most chocolate milk has more calories and sugar per ounce than soda. Just read the label."

She concedes, however, that at home, parents may not completely abandon chocolate milk from their children's diets.

"As a special treat, fine," she says. "But not day-in and day-out."

At other times, some well-meaning grown-ups can get it wrong. While ABC News was with Cooper, talking to students at the Malcolm X Elementary School, a parent-volunteer, mentoring a fifth grader arrived with a bag of McDonald's as a special treat.

"This is kind of a reward for doing well on her 50 states test," said the mentor.

And while the mentor's special lunch upset Lunch Lady Cooper and all she is trying to accomplish in the cafeteria, plenty of parents make similar "missteps." One young student had a lunch packed lovingly by her father filled with goodies like Dorito chips and Oreo cookies.

Small Victories

Despite the challenges that, at times, can look insurmountable, there are small victories that make it all worthwhile for Cooper.

At the salad bar at Malcolm X Elementary School, fifth graders were eager to eat the fruit salad, a recipe they once tried in class.

"Wow, and you helped make it?" ABC News asked the students scooping up the apples, pears and persimmons.

"Yup!" the students responded.

"Does that make you want to eat it more?"

"Yeah!" they said.

It's moments like this that make Cooper smile.

One day after serving custom-ordered salads for the high school students, Cooper remarked, "Another day of lunch, I still have kids lined up for salad, I just love that.

"This is what it's about, kids eating the food, it's really great."