Ann Cooper may be the most innovative lunch lady in America. Since 2000, she has been executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition for Ross School, a private school in East Hampton, N.Y., which serves 200,000 meals a year.
"I want to change the way America feeds its children," she said during a University of Michigan-sponsored seminar last September.
The former executive chef at the Putney Inn in Vermont recruited six cooks - also former executive chefs at white-tablecloth restaurants - as her staff. The team prepares menus with regional, organic, seasonal, and sustainable foods.
Mrs. Cooper, who is one of the first 50 women to be certified as an Executive Chef by the American Culinary Federation, was used to the cooking custom of deference and respect in the chic restaurant setting where underlings say "yes chef" when addressed.
A month or two into the 2000 school year at Ross School, six fifth-graders walked into the cafe with their hands on their hips and announced, "Mrs. Cooper, we don't like the food. We want macaroni and cheese. We don't like the bread." They had never heard of "yes chef."
That the bread was homemade - probably some kind of whole wheat - and not the soft, squishy store-brought kind, was the issue. "It started a dialogue with them. They tasted cheeses. They made breads," the chef says, explaining how she got them on board. "The next September when they were in sixth grade and walking down the hall with the new fifth-graders, they told the younger students, 'You should be glad you weren't here last year. We fixed all the food up.' "
The food service team serves breakfast and lunch at Ross School, which has 300 students (fifth to 12th grades) and 200 faculty and staff members, as well as lunch to a local public school, Bridgehampton. "We cook from scratch," says Mrs. Cooper. And, yes, they follow federal guidelines. "We spend more on our food. Most schools have food service companies making a profit. We can't pretend it's OK to feed kids for $1.25 per lunch. Think of what you can eat for one dollar."
Ross School food service does not make a profit. In fact, each lunch costs the school about $3. "The school pays for the expense of the lunch," the chef says. "We believe that nutrition and wellness is a core value and we feed everyone. Food is not brought on campus, nor do kids go out for lunch. Lunch is part of their education."
Last Wednesday, the lunch menu included Spicy Corn and Black Bean Salad and Cream of Tomato Soup (the corn and tomatoes had been frozen from the summer's bounty); Roast Chicken with Fresh Made Biscuits; Vegetable and Tofu Fried Rice; Steamed Carrots, Spicy Peanut Bok Choy; Pear Tart; and two kinds of wood-fired pizza.
There is no a la carte, and no daily hamburger and french fries option. "We serve oven-roasted potatoes cut like french fries," she says. In fact all the root vegetables such as carrots, rutabaga, and parsnips are oven-fried and served.
"Not everyone eats or likes everything," she says. But most students try much of it.
Mrs. Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest (Routledge, $29.95), notes that 1.5 percent of Americans are farmers; 9 percent of every food dollar goes to farmers; 12 percent of all American children have type 2 diabetes; 20 percent of all meals are eaten in fast-food restaurants; 25 percent of all children are overweight; and 66 percent of all grocery store items contain genetically modified organisms.