Pesticides, trans fats, high fructose syrup: Our modern lives are surrounded by ingredients that many argue are undermining our health slowly but surely. While there is a growing number of clean-eating options at restaurants and grocery stores, school food is often an afterthought. Even if parents are careful about their children’s diets, they usually have no control over what their kids are eating at school: oily chicken nuggets, pizza, mac and cheese.
It’s a reality Chef Ann Cooper, director of food services at Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), has been trying to change for more than a decade. Most recently she’s started eliminating seven potentially harmful ingredients from the school lunch program across the district with the help of a grant from Life Time Foundation.
“Corporate agriculture uses 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides each year,” she told a TEDx Manhattan audience in 2013. “That’s a 5-pound bag for every man, woman and child in our country.”
Here in Boulder County, Chef Ann has implemented a number of changes to ensure kids at BVSD have access to healthy food over the past nine years. For example, the cafeterias at BVSD now cook school lunches from scratch, using organic and local ingredients. Even so, she still saw one aspect she wanted to change: the use of certain processed foods.
According to the Life Time Foundation, trans fats and hydrogenated oils increase the risk of heart disease, and high fructose corn syrup can lead to an increased risk of diabetes. Consuming hormones and antibiotics through food may result in antibiotic resistance. Processed and artificial sweeteners can contribute to childhood obesity; artificial colors and flavors are known to increase hyperactivity; artificial preservatives carry potential cancer risks; and bleached flour is often made with hazardous materials such as chlorine.
Dubbed the Harmful 7 by the Life Time Foundation, Chef Ann says these ingredients aren’t good for anyone to consume, especially children.
“We want our children to be as healthy as possible, and it’s very important that we don’t feed them chemicals and preservatives,” she says. “They have smaller bodies, so the same amount has a larger effect.”
The so-called “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann also promotes parent advocacy through her Chef Ann Foundation, getting BVSD parents involved in what their children are eating for lunch.
“I believe our bodies don’t know what to do when they encounter processed foods, additives, preservatives, food coloring and all the other things that Great Grandma wouldn’t recognize as food,” says Bevin Stilson, mother of three children who attend Monarch High School and Louisville Elementary. She’s concerned artificial ingredients may tire children and hinder them from concentrating at school. “With proper nutrition, I think children are better equipped to learn,” she says.
When her son first asked if he could eat in the school cafeteria instead of packing his own lunch every day, Stilson hesitated. “I was skeptical,” she says. However, she eventually agreed after seeing Chef Ann’s efforts to make the food at BVSD greener. “If you leave a veggie tray on the kitchen counter, they’ll eat it, simply because it’s there and they want something easy when they’re hungry,” Stilson says. It must be true because students seem to love Chef Ann’s offerings.
In addition to lunches made from scratch, Chef Ann also introduced salad bars at many of the schools and offers food education events to help kids understand the nutritional effects of the different foods being offered.
Her programs reached 400,00 children in 2016, and this year, the Chef Ann Foundation is aiming to reach even more. “I think we are helping school districts change their food across the country,” she says.
In recognition of Chef Ann’s tireless effort to improve the health of children, both at BVSD and around the country, she was named a “Top 50 food activists” by the Academy of Culinary Nutrition in 2016.