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Renegade lunch lady saving kids' lives, one plate at a time

  • Story Highlights
  • Chef, school nutrition chief Ann Cooper hopes to change the way America's kids eat
  • Her Berkeley, California, schools serve fruit, salad bar daily
  • Her "meal wheel" helps kids understand what should be on their plates daily
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By Fran Fifis
CNN
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(CNN) -- Ann Cooper is on a one-woman whirlwind campaign to change the way kids eat in schools. "We're killing our kids with food," she says.

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Ann Cooper sees her work transforming school lunch programs as a way to leave a lasting impact.

Half of all the Hispanic and African-American kids born in 2000 and one-third of Caucasian kids will have diabetes in their lifetime, many before they graduate college, Cooper says, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. "It's all because of what we are feeding them," she says. "It's all preventable."

Cooper, self-proclaimed renegade lunch lady and chef, is actively working against what she describes as entrenched interests -- fast-food companies and junk-food producers -- that she says profit from selling unhealthy foods to schools. They're "basically making money off our children's health and their future," she says. "I'm just so pissed off."

She wasn't always this way. Cooper used to be a big-shot celebrity chef who worked at tony resorts, on cruise ships, for hotel chains and prestigious film festivals. She's won numerous awards and is on boards for executive chefs, women chefs and the Alumni Committee of the Culinary Institute of America.

Despite the accolades, Cooper felt something was missing. She recognized that as a celebrity chef, she was reaching only the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in the country. So she sought ways to make a difference.

She and her fellow culinary icons "would spend a lot of time trying to give back," she says. "We cooked for Second Harvest, we cooked for donations, we cooked whatever."

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But there was also impermanence to food. Whether people ate her food or threw it away, Cooper lamented that it all ended up as sewage or waste.

After writing her first book, "A Woman's Place Is In the Kitchen," on the role of women in food, she started to feel like there was a way to leave something behind. Writing the book led to associations with high-profile women who were trying to make a difference -- Alice Waters from Berkeley, California, and Nora Pouillon of Washington, D.C., who were into organics and sustainability.

Those relationships changed the way she thought about food -- so much so that a few years later came her second book, "Bitter Harvest," about where our food supply comes from and how political concerns often trump healthy diets.

Now Cooper knew she was getting somewhere. When the Ross School in East Hampton, New York, called offering her a position as executive chef of wellness and nutrition, she didn't exactly jump at the chance. But after giving it some thought, she realized it was a way to reach future generations and really leave a lasting impact. "All of a sudden, it felt like, wow, this is something I could really do, and I could really make a difference."

Today, Cooper is director of nutrition services in Berkeley, where she has transformed the school lunch program from 90 percent frozen reheated foods to 90 percent fresh. Berkeley schools used to serve fruit once a week; now it's on the menu every day, and so is the salad bar.

More than that, the healthy food curriculum is carried into the classroom. With a staff of 90 to help, Cooper runs cooking classes, gardening classes and serves food in 17 locations. She has created a "meal wheel" to help kids all over the country understand what should be on their plates daily. With her Web page, Lunch Lessons, Cooper is hoping to make her program a model. "There's only one of me. I can't cover the whole country," she says.

If she had one wish, Cooper says, it would be that "Oprah would take on this issue as a social justice issue and that we would get our presidential candidates to really start to talk about this issue, because I just can't imagine what's more important ... than the next generation. We're just really not taking care of them." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Fran Fifis is a senior producer in CNN's Boston, Massachusetts, bureau.

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