What do an organic garden, a teaching kitchen, and a school lunchroom have in common? Together they can contribute to better health and nutrition for America's children. Three cheers for Chef Ann Cooper and the School Lunch Initiative!
In the fall of 2005, New York celebrity chef Ann Cooper accepted the position (and the challenge) of Director of Nutritional Services of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). Her mission: to develop and implement a comprehensive school lunch and nutrition education program for ALL the public school children in the district, kindergarten through high school. Ann has already been dubbed the "renegade lunch lady" from her work transforming New York's Ross School lunch program into a model of Regional, Organic, Sustainable, and Seasonal food. Now she faces her greatest challenge—harnessing community support and funding to create a unified school wellness policy within a public school system.
The School Lunch Initiative provides the blueprint in Berkeley, but community members, non-profit organizations, parents, staff, teachers and students at the district's 16 schools provide the heart and soul, making it happen every day. This grassroots effort stems from a new paradigm in nutrition education, based on the premise (and a growing body of research) that when kids are connected with the source of their food—when they can experience food hands-on from seed to table—they are more likely to choose these same healthful foods in other settings, such as at home and in the school lunchroom. The School Lunch Initiative (along with a growing number of inspired programs around the country) seeks to creatively link comprehensive, curriculum-based school garden and cooking programs with increased healthful menus and choices for children in the school lunchroom. Kids get a chance to grow, prepare and eat good food—at school!
So, do these programs work? Are American children, who face an onslaught of fast food marketing resulting in negative health and obesity trends, actually eating more healthfully as a result of the School Lunch Initiative? We don't yet have the benefit of long term health studies to answer this question, but perhaps the proof is in the pudding (organic pudding, of course). When Ann Cooper is asked what her greatest accomplishment has been to date on her new quest in Berkeley, she answers simply and without hesitation or elaboration, "The kids are eating the food." Period.