Chef Ann Cooper says the National School Lunch Program Needs a Makeover

The week of August 10 is Healthy Back to School Week at

chef ann renegade lunch ladyIt’s a pleasure to have Chef Ann Cooper join us during our Healthy Back to School Week. She’s also known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, as she’s made it her life’s mission to reform the way our children eat, and are fed, at school. She is currently the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, where she has transformed the nutritional quality of food at 16 schools serving 9,000 students. In 2006 she released Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed our Children. At, they say “She works to transform cafeterias into culinary classrooms for students — one school lunch at a time.”

Sometime in late 2024 or early 2024, the government will vote to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which funds the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). I believe that the NSLP is in need of a complete overhaul. The inception of the program was predicated on the fact that there were malnourished children all across the country that couldn’t learn or think. As these same children grew into adulthood, they became a National Security liability, because many of them were too malnourished to become an active part of our armed forces.

Over the decades the government has set about to assure that nutritious food was being served and the program came to feed over 30 million children a day with a price tag of over $8.5 billion a year. Another function of the program was promoting large scale agriculture and what resulted was a system at odds, supporting large scale farmers, who often produced food that when consumed as the majority of a daily diet is not necessarily healthy or promoting children’s health. To my mind there is a clear case of conflict of interest; supporting agribusiness companies producing cheap corn, soy, pork and chicken and also being responsible for our children’s wellbeing.

In an effort to control the program as it got larger and larger, more and more regulations were put in place.  The system of controlling over 100,000 schools fell to the states who interpreted the federal guidelines, the adherence of which demanded that school districts spend up to a third of their payroll budget on paperwork, counting kids (to assure that no hungry child who didn’t qualify was given free lunch) and number crunching. The result of this system is that Nutrition Services departments find themselves and their teams spending an inordinate amount of time striving to follow guidelines as opposed to feeding children. We’re tasked with free and reduced forms, daily student meal counts, monthly reports by free, reduced and paid students, production reports, menus and recipes and nutritional analysis either by the day or week.

school lunchThe nutritional analysis of what we feed our children has led to a system where chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup and canned fruit cocktail, or even in some cases popsicles, are an acceptable meal. Nutrient analysis allows the governing bodies an easy way to access whether a school district is complying with the guidelines, but is a system where the importance of numbers has replaced the importance of food. This is a system that demands milk at every meal, yet takes no account of the millions of children who are lactose intolerant. This is a system that demands a minimum of calories, but not a maximum; which makes no sense in a country where over 30% of the children are over-weight or obese.  This extremely flawed system results in agribusiness companies formulating Products (often mistaken as food) that fit the numbers, but have no real relationship to food as we know it, or at least should know it.

Check back tomorrow for part two of Chef Ann’s commentary on the National School Lunch Program.

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