Chef Ann Cooper hasn’t changed her tune much in the last 20 years. She still firmly believes that school lunches should be made from whole, fresh ingredients—as few as possible—and they should be delicious. Her simple and singular focus has earned her a national platform and committed following. On a daily basis, Ann gets emails from across the country; from parents, school food workers, principals, teachers and government officials. Usually the questions flow somewhat like this: “I really want to do X but Y is telling me it’s impossible and I have heard you speak about Z. Can you send me any information on how I can support this in my school?” Without hesitation, Ann answers every email she gets and usually on the day she gets it. She knows the importance of ensuring these advocates across the country feel like they have the power to make a touchstone for change.
Twelve years ago, Ann had a vision; she wanted to make sure that all schools had access to the support and resources necessary to move their school food programs to cook-from-scratch operations. Her original vision was an actual tool box, or what she envisioned as a lunch box, of physical tools and templates. She soon realized that digitizing the tool box would enable her to distribute the resources as they were developed by Ann and her team, providing easier access for school districts around the country. And voila! In 2011, TheLunchBox.org was born. Today, The Lunch Box is providing support for over 8,500 school food operators. There have been new versions of The Lunch Box throughout the years as school food operations have evolved. Now, with help from the Colorado Health Foundation, Lunch Box 3.0 is in development. As always, Chef Ann wants to make sure that districts have something to aspire to, so she is pushing her Foundation to add content areas. New content will include resources to build central kitchens, recipes, and menu cycles using plant-based proteins, and tools to help reduce food waste and environmental footprint.
Chef Ann inspires schools to be innovative and push boundaries. She knows, better than most, how challenging that is. She has daily discussions with different adversaries—kids who want Domino’s instead of the freshly baked pizza they serve, administrators who think too much attention is given to food, and others believe that if things aren’t broken then there is no need to fix them. The list goes on, but there is not much that deters Chef Ann from staying focused on her mission.
As a white table cloth chef back in the ‘70s, Ann often faced obstacles as a female in a male-dominated culinary world. She is petite at five feet tall, but when she walks into a room her presence is known. She works hard, makes things happen, and believes that anything is possible. This mentality is reflected in the many roles she currently holds. Ann is the Food Services Director for Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Boulder, Colorado, serving nearly 14,000 meals a day in 52 schools. She travels the globe advocating for school food reform and the need for access to healthy food for all children. She is the founder, and President of the Board of Directors, for the Chef Ann Foundation, which is currently celebrating its 10 year anniversary. To date, the Foundation has reached over 10,000 schools and 3 million children in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia. Chef Ann also has a consulting agency, Lunch Lessons, that she shares with her long-time friend and fellow school food expert, Chef Beth Collins. And did I mention that on December 2nd, 2018, she turns 65?
To complete this list, Ann is now realizing a long-time goal: planning and building a central kitchen for BVSD. This isn’t about a new facility and novel equipment; for Ann, it is a chance to increase efficiencies, optimize labor costs, improve the quality of food production, and ultimately save money so she can put the dollars towards higher quality ingredients. The cherry on top is that the planning and building process can be documented, then shared by the Chef Ann Foundation with all school districts in the country.
The Chef Ann Foundation continues to push as hard as Ann herself, with three new School Food Institute courses launching this month, projections for nearly 400 salad bar grants in 2019 (which will bring the total of salad bars donated through the Salad Bars to Schools project to almost 6000), the opening of the fourth Get Schools Cooking grant, and building out the content plan for the next generation Lunch Box.
If you are nearing your 65th birthday and thinking that most of your contributions are behind you, think about Chef Ann and get out there and make something happen!
Happy birthday, Ann!