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Ann Cooper approaching retirement, but says her work isn’t done

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“Renegade Lunch Lady” revolutionized school lunch and made BVSD a national example

For more than two decades Chef Ann Cooper has been a force to be reckoned with, tirelessly working to bring attention and change to school lunches across the country. Here in the Boulder Valley School District, as the Director of Food Services, Cooper, who plans to retire at the end of December, has had the opportunity to show the world that her aspirations of serving students healthy, fresh and delicious scratch cooked meals is not only possible, but necessary.

“People in our community have cared about what we feed our kids. They have cared about healthier foods,” Cooper said. “They have helped to not only make it happen but to sustain it. For that, I’ll always be thankful.”
 

The fight to make school lunch healthier and fresher

It hasn’t always been that way. Cooper, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a chef for more than 40 years, says that when she moved to school food 21 years ago, in 1999, school lunch was largely prepackaged, unhealthy and likely to stay that way.

“I had a tremendous amount of pushback from some of the staff and parents at the beginning,” Cooper recalled. 

She wasn’t afraid to take on long-time school favorites like chocolate milk or cupcakes.

“A lot of press showed up at a board meeting years ago, because they thought there would be no more cupcakes. Like we need more cupcakes in the world,” Cooper said with a laugh.

Cooper didn’t give up. She recruited ‘founding families’ that helped to launch the effort and with their support, slowly and steadily worked to change the perception.

“All these years later, by and large, the community has really supported what we have been doing and that has been gratifying,” Cooper said.

LEARN MORE: BVSD School Food Project
 

Bringing change at a national scale

What is truly amazing is that this “Renegade Lunch Lady,” has helped to change school lunch here in BVSD, but also across the country by helping to start a conversation at the national-level. 

“School food wasn’t always something that was talked about” Cooper recalled. “Yes, there were people in small pockets that were talking about it, but as far as a national conversation, it wasn’t something that was talked about. My foundation pushed. Other groups pushed and I think the USDA listened. We saw a lot of positive changes.”

In 2009, Cooper founded the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping schools take action so that every child is well-nourished and ready to learn.

“I think that my work, and others that believed in this, actually changed the way things are in school food,” Cooper said, while also heavily crediting the Obama administration and specifically former First Lady Michelle Obama

“I am filled with gratitude that I got to work with Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move campaign,” Cooper said. “She was an amazing leader.”

The work isn’t over though. Even as she plans to retire, she says she is looking forward to the new administration in the White House and hopes to be able to support their work, which she hopes will further her biggest aspiration.

“It really ought to be a birthright in our country that every child, every day has healthy food and that no child is hungry.  The Boulder community has supported that. The school district has supported that. We need the whole country to support that and I hope we get there,” Cooper said.

Supporting local farmers and food producers

When you ask Cooper, one of her largest accomplishments, is that 25 percent of the food purchased by BVSD is local and regional. 

“A lot of people have done a little bit,” Cooper explained. “To get to 25 percent local and regional is pretty unique.”

Typically food travels 1,500-2,000 miles before it gets to our school cafeterias. Here in Boulder Valley, Cooper has gone to great lengths to recruit local farmers and producers to provide the ingredients needed.

“We are supporting our community. We are supporting the people whose tax dollars help subsidize the district,” Cooper said. “Plus, this gives our students daily access to fresh, healthy food.”

“We get our tamales from La Casita in Denver, bagels from Moe’s Bagels, tortillas from the Tortilla Company and pot stickers from Sisters’ Pantry,” Cooper listed off.

Chef Ann’s big dream, becomes a reality

BVSD’s new Culinary Center, which opened this August, is supporting these efforts. 

Its larger freezers, coolers and dry storage have provided the district with 5,000 square feet of food storage. This allows BVSD to increase the amount of food the district can purchase in bulk, thereby reducing costs. Much of its increased purchasing power is being directed towards acquiring fresh food from local farmers and producers.

In addition to the extra storage space, daily efficiency will increase as production is centralized, resulting in additional cost savings on the 14,000+ meals cooked by BVSD Food Services every day. 

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been fully realized, due to the impacts of the pandemic.

“I am sad that the Culinary Center hasn’t had the opportunity to do everything we had planned for it to do, because of COVID,” Cooper said. 

“I’m sorry that I’m not going to be there to support all the rest of the development and all the new things that can happen there, but on the other hand, I just turned 67 and I’ve been working since I was 17, so it is a lot of years. It is time to do something else.” 

She knows the potential of the new center and her team. The incoming interim director, Stephen Menyhart, has already worked for the district for many years. 

“Stephen and the whole entire management team is seasoned. They work well together. They will be able to move this forward. I have no doubt that they will be amazing and the district is very lucky to have all these great people working for them.”
 

Riding off in a camper van, but not into the sunset

Cooper is planning on retiring at the end of December and has already begun the preparations for her new adventure.

“I just bought a camper van and I want to start traveling nationally,” Cooper said. “One of the first places I’m going to go is the Pacific Northwest. I have some friends there and haven’t been for a while.”

She intends to criss cross the country, before settling down in a new home that she is building in Grand Junction, Colorado.

“My family lives on the East Coast and I haven’t seen my 91 year old mother for over a year because I couldn’t travel,” Cooper said.

Do not expect her to fade into the sunset, however. She will continue to play a role in school food, through her Foundation. She also will continue to serve on the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, a committee appointed by the governor to work through food and agriculture issues.

With so much passion left for school food, you might wonder why Cooper has chosen to retire now. She says that it was the pandemic that changed her outlook.

“I’m starting to feel more mortal than I ever have in my whole life,” Cooper admitted. “I guess after all these years of working, I want more time to play. No one knows what is going to happen. Maybe I’ll live 20 years, but maybe I’ll live 20 months.”
 

1 Million meals during the pandemic

There is no doubt that Cooper is going out on top. She and her team are serving more students than ever before – ensuring that BVSD families do not go hungry during this difficult time.

True to form, she is quick to turn the attention towards her team and their valiant efforts.

“I’ve always been really proud of them, but since March we have served a million meals to hungry people in our community. We have become the largest hunger relief organization in our area,” Cooper said.

“Our lunch ladies, and most of them are women, have gone from being lunch ladies to first responders. Every day they are out there, feeding people, packaging food and cooking food during this pandemic. I couldn’t be more proud of the team for stepping up and doing this,” Cooper added.

WATCH: BVSD Heroes Food Distribution