Boulder, CO - I write this from the lovely Kitchen Cafe, far from the hormone-driven hordes at the nearby middle school, where I just observed the eating habits of the average 13-year-old.
The Boulder schools have a celebrity chef, who you may have caught last night on ABC News committing the ongoing heresy of speaking out against chocolate milk. She’s had one death threat so far this week. Chef Ann, as Ann Cooper is called, also has had bad things to say about Girl Scout cookies in the past, which makes some parents positively nuts.
“There are people who absolutely hate me,” she says from her windowless office, a bare cell with a balance ball for a chair. Chef Ann fixes me with a direct stare: “People think I should stay out of their lives.”
There are some great school lunch critics out there, like Washington, DC-based writer Ed Bruske, who recently spent a week in the Boulder school kitchens. I’m more interested in what people do with food at home, where, in between the tasty meals that rely on the crunch of a green or the purity of a grain, I’m witnessing regular atrocities against vegetables and diets that are just plain dangerous.
But I’m here because no one, not Michele Obama or Jamie Oliver, has conquered that cultural hurdle that keeps most of us cooking like our grandmothers.
Ann Cooper thinks she can make inroads by improving the quality of food in her Boulder public school lunchrooms and introducing the youngest children to salads, grains and fruit. She began, with generous grants, by changing menus, upgrading ingredients, eliminating sugary sodas and snacks, and making foods from scratch in several centralized kitchens.
You would think that the parents of wealthy Boulder, like those in the Berkeley school district she came from, would just eat up The Renegade Lunch Lady’s lunchroom reform.
But Boulder, which has the highest per capita number of trust funders in the US, also has a large Hispanic population, plenty of kids on free and reduced lunches, and those cranky parents who say “Who do you think you are? Don’t tell me how to feed my kids.”
“There’s been a lot of pushback,” she says. “Berkeley and Boulder are just as bad as every place else.”
Turning around a school district takes five to seven years, she says, and she’s just a few years into it. The measure of her success to date is in the lunchroom, where a rather energetic group of sixth graders queue today for a choice of a wholesome whole wheat turkey wrap or mac & cheese, which is pretty tasty, but still. It’s pasta and cheese. The wraps are barely touched.
One after another, the students stop at the fresh salad bar, where they can choose from fresh greens! Peas! Red kidney beans! Cottage cheese! There is hope.
Their favorite vegetable?
“Jalapenos,” Taza Torres’ says. The 13-year-old seventh grader has doused his mac & cheese with hot sauce, several large bottles of which are by the cash register, and he’s silently working through the side of peppers.
“I usually don’t get the entree because it’s gross and disgusting,” says Mikhaela Moen, 12, who is at a nearby table with three friends. “The whole lunch is nasty and the chicken is nasty.”
“The chicken bits are nasty. The chicken legs are good,” says her friend, Nora Meade, 11, who brings a carefully packed lunch from home that today includes a chocolate chip Clif bar, a homemade chocolate sandwich cookie, homemade clam chowder, and sliced mango.
See what the lunch team is up against?
I would say that Chef Ann has a thankless job, but she routinely collects awards for her advocacy, she was profiled a few years back in The New Yorker and gained notoriety as the lunch lady, and has launched a foundation and an interactive website to help other school lunch reformers. She has some very vocal supporters, and there’s also a growing awareness in Colorado that the claim they stake as the skinniest state is relative. About one in 20 Coloradans is obese, and a growing number of them are children.
She’s also very realistic about the cultural hurdles before her.
“If kids are eating an unhealthy diet at home, how do you get them to eat differently at school? Until all of us as Americans make food a core value it’s going to be a problem,” she says.