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Health Experts

Beyond the Lunch Pail

Rethinking school lunch.

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Ann Cooper discusses our children’s nutrition and offers tips to improve it. Did you know that 78 percent of school lunch programs in America fall short of USDA nutritional guidelines? Chef Ann Cooper, director of Nutrition Services for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, wants to change this disturbing fact. With coauthor Lisa M. Holmes, Cooper has set out to do just that through her eye-opening book Lunch Lessons (which is also chock-full of kid-friendly recipes).

Q: What inspired you to write Lunch Lessons?

A: In writing my second book, Bitter Harvest, I began to understand who owns our food supplies, who profits from what we eat, and why food is making us and our children sick. This knowledge motivated me to become a lunch lady and eventually writeLunch Lessons.

Q: In general, just how healthful/unhealthful are school lunches in the public school system nationwide?

A: As I say in my book, Lunch Lessons, most school cafeterias still serve a veritable buffet of processed, fried, and sugary foods. Many children get breakfast and lunch at school and many of the meals include high fructose corn syrup, added trans fats, chemicals, and additives. Dangerous and unhealthy eating habits are being formed, which our nation will be forced to deal with in the form of a health crisis that is brewing as we speak.

Q: How can parents influence local school lunch administrators to improve the quality of lunches served at our children’s schools?

A: Parents can be a wonderful spark that helps to improve school lunches. It truly helps to start by gaining a strong knowledge of the system. First, eat lunch in a local school and see what you think, then inquire about the wellness policy in the local school district. Get involved by volunteering in the cafeteria or starting a garden at your a local school or in the community. Not many people want to serve kids unhealthy highly processed food, but the alternative requires resources and lots of hard work. Unite the community and form a committee of diverse stakeholders so that you can work together toward improvement.

Q: Why is breakfast so important, particularly for children?

A: Breakfast fuels our bodies and minds and sets the tone for the entire day. Breakfast is essential for learning, and universal breakfast (breakfast for all) removes the stigma attached to getting breakfast at school and levels the playing field, giving all kids the same opportunity to learn as much as possible.

Q: What are some tips to encourage children to eat more vegetables?

A: Getting kids in a garden whether at home, a community garden, or local farm is a great way to get them excited about eating produce. Including children in shopping and preparation is also a wonderful way to entice kids to eat well. Because they helped make it, they’re far more likely to eat it and enjoy it.

Q: What is some advice for parents of children who beg for sodas, sugary cereals, and other junk food?

A: Parents and adults are the caregivers and educators of children. In the same way as we make choices for and with them around alcohol and drug consumption, we must help make those same hard choices around junk food.

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