Renegade Lunch Lady Says Schools Are Giving Kids Diabetes

School chef, activist Ann Cooper says president Obama should make school lunch crisis a priority.

Leah Zerbe March 9, 2009

RODALE NEWS, ANAHEIM, CA—Ann Cooper sees a crisis unfolding in school cafeterias across the country. With each corn dog, popsicle, and sugar-slogged fruit snack sold in a lunch line, Cooper, a.k.a. the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” feels a chill run down her spine. “American schools are giving kids diabetes,” she warns. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that at least a third of all kids born in 2000 will become diabetic unless diet and exercise habits drastically change. “This is a huge, huge public health crisis and I believe the social justice issue of our time,” says executive chef Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District and founder of the nonprofit group Lunch Lessons. “We have a moral imperative to make sure the children in our country are getting fed food that is healthy, that’s not making them sick, that’s not going to make them obese.”

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THE DETAILS: Cooper, a mover and shaker in the school lunch movement for the last decade, was checking out healthier meal alternatives at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim last week. There, she explained that 30 million kids a day are fed food that can ultimately make them sick. “If we feed them chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk, and canned fruit cocktail with high fructose corn syrup—which is exactly what the USDA says, and will pay for me to feed to children—if we don’t think that’s awful, I don’t know what is.”

WHAT IT MEANS: School is where children learn. And lunchtime should be no exception. “The most important thing we can do in Obama’s first 100 days is make sure that even in this financial crisis, we absolutely make our children’s health a priority,” Cooper says. “We should have universal breakfast and lunch in schools, and it should be a birthright in our country that every child in America get healthy food at school every day.”

Here’s how you can help bring healthy food and eating habits to your child at home and at school.

• Shut off the TV. We spend a lot of time eating fast food, and eating in our cars or in front of a computer/iPhone/TV screen. What ever happened to the good old-fashioned kitchen table? Cooper says parents should make time to eat, cook, garden, and grocery shop together to develop healthier eating habits.

• Don’t take “organic” to mean “overeat.” Organic is better because it keeps pesticides out of the environment and out of our food, but when we’re talking nutrition, organic cupcakes and potato chips just aren’t going to cut it. “We can’t just be all about the next organic junk food, the next organic kids’ food that’s really no better than the conventional model, except that’s it’s organic,” Cooper says. “We have to start making sure that our kids are eating healthy; that we put a high priority on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, an animal protein as a side, a smaller portion. That’s really what’s going to be sustainable.”

• Go to the board. Curious about your child’s cafeteria policies? Go to the school board and find out what wellness and nutritional policies are in place. And then…

• Eat your kid’s lunch. Cooper says most parents will inherently know something’s wrong if they share a meal with their child in the school cafeteria. Sometimes it just takes seeing it, and eating it, to believe it. But it’s a good motivator that can get parents to lobby for healthier changes in school lunches.

To learn more about Cooper’s cause, visit Lunch Lessons.