Chefs Who Cook Well and Do Good: Ann Cooper

By Deirdre Appel

Name: Chef Ann Cooper

Hometown: N/A

Culinary Training: Culinary Institute of America

Best Known For: Giving school students access to healthy food; revolutionizing ; her role as the “Renegade Lunch Lady” as well as author, chef, public speaker and advocate

How She Is Changing the Food System: Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 40 years, over 17 of those in school food programs.

She now dedicates her career to ensuring that every child has healthy food at school every day and no child is ever hungry. For Chef Ann, this is a birthright she has been fighting to secure for children for decades.

In her 2007 Ted Talk, What’s Wrong With School Lunches, Chef Ann says, “We needed to teach children the symbiotic relationship between a healthy planet, healthy food and healthy kids. And if we don’t do that, the antithesis, although we’ve heard otherwise, is that we’re really going to become extinct, because we’re feeding our children to death. That’s my premise.”

She continued to say, “We’re seeing sick kids get sicker and sicker. And the reason this is happening, by and large, is because of our food system and the way the government commodifies food, the way the government oversees our food, the way the USDA puts food on kids’ plates that’s unhealthy, and allows unhealthy food into schools.”

And it is not just fearmongering; Chef Ann is taking action to change the course of food history. In 2009, she founded the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) to focus on solutions to the school food crisis. CAF provides tools, training, resources and funding to support schools transitioning to scratch-cooked meals made with whole, healthy food. There major programs include:

Salad Bars to Schools
While naysayers may have told her she would never get salad bars in schools, Chef Ann did not give up. Salad Bars to Schools (SB2S) was founded by the Chef Ann Foundation, National Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, United Fresh Start Foundation, and Whole Foods Market in support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative. SB2S is a grant program that helps schools expand their commitment to serving fresh fruits and vegetables by implementing salad bars as part of their daily meal programs. While there may be a growing recognition of the health and educational benefits of salad bars, many school districts lack the basic equipment and funding required to implement this solution. SB2S helps schools overcome these challenges.

The Lunch Box
Launched in 2010, The Lunch Box is an online resource that provides free step-by-step guides, tools, and recipes to help schools improve their food programs. Its mission is to give school district administrators, food service directors and their teams the resources they need to serve healthy, nutritious, and delicious food to every student, every day.

Parent Advocacy Initiative
Because the CAF believes that the majority of school food change begins with parents who care about their children’s at home and at school, the foundation took on an initiative to help parents lead grassroots advocacy efforts in their school districts. It offers information and eye-opening videos about the importance of healthy school food, a Parent Advocacy Toolkit designed to guide parents through school-food advocacy in three clear steps–Get Educated, Get Organized, and Take Action–as well as assistance in finding available grants.

The School Food Institute
In 2017 the CAF launched the School Food Institute, an online education course that teaches school food service workers and child nutrition advocates across the United States to break away from prepackaged school lunches and move toward meals featuring fresh ingredients and on-the-spot cooking.

The School Food Institute’s coursework kicked off with eight professional development courses focusing on key areas of school food operations including procurement, marketing and lunchroom education, human resources, finance, and recipe and menu development. The Institute gives school food service professionals and childhood nutrition advocates the in-depth training, operational skills, and strategic vision necessary to make school food fresh, healthy, and sustainable.

All courses conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements for the annual training of food service professionals. Participants can earn the only national certificate that recognizes a school’s transition to scratch-cook operations.

Awards and Honors:

Throughout her career, Chef Ann has been recognized for her achievements as a chef, activist, advocate and nonprofit leader. Here are a few examples of her many achievements.

  • She received an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture
  • In 2012 she received a Humanitarian of the Year award from  the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP)
  • She was named one of the “Influential 20” by Food Service Director Magazine
  • She was named one of the top 15 Crusaders for Health in the Food Industry by Greatist.com
  • She received the Women and Restaurateurs’ Community Service Award and a Special Inspirational Award from the Susan B. Komen Foundation.
  • She was named “One of the Top 50 Food Activists” by the Academy of Culinary Nutrition

In addition to her awards and honors, Chef Ann has held several advisory positions with organizations that help to raise awareness about the value of healthy food systems:

Chef Ann is also the author of four books: Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (2006), In Mother’s Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes (2005), Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (2000) and A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs (1998).

Social Media

Chef Ann Cooper

Chef Ann Foundation

Interesting stories about Chef Ann Cooper and CAF in online media:

A Chef’s Toast to Michelle Obama by Chef Ann Cooper (US News)
A Conversation With Ann Cooper, Renegade Lunch Lady (The Atlantic)
A Local Foundation Seeks to Revolutionize School Lunch Programs Across the Country (303 Magazine)
Bad Food Is Making Our Kids Sick (and How to Take Charge) (Huffington Post)
Boulder Valley’s “Renegade Lunch Lady” goes national (Denver Post)
The Renegade Lunch Lady Celebrates Her 65th Birthday (Food Tank)
‘Renegade Lunch Lady’ to give talk on healthy food for schools (Around the O)
See How the Chef Ann Foundation Is Mending a Broken Food System (Boulder Lifestyle)
These Entrepreneurs Are Taking A Systems Approach To Food Challenges (Forbes)
What’s Wrong With School Lunches (Ted Talk)






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