The 10 Best School Lunches in America? The Secret Ingredient

Ann Cooper looking over the salad bar from behind students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in the Berkeley Unified School District.

Ann Cooper looking over the salad bar from behind students at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in the Berkeley Unified School District.

I was delighted to see The Daily Meal publish its top 10 list for school lunch programs across the country. Surely such a list is as important as U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings, which we all know motivate schools to improve their programs. Perhaps the Daily Meal list will inspire schools to plant more greenhouses, and maybe even follow First Lady Michelle’s lead, and add cooking skills to their curriculum.

But the list missed the chance to spotlight Ann Cooper, the chef, writer, and school food whisperer who had her hand in nearly half the lunch programs on the Daily Meal roster. Cooper started building her reputation as a renegade lunch lady when she launched the impressive lunch program at Ross School, in East Hampton, and then ran a study with Harvard scientists showing how Ross students and teachers, after eating organic school lunches, had lower levels of pesticides in their bodies. The Ross School, whose awe-inspiring cafe we profiled here, came in at #4 on the Daily Meal list.

But it was when Cooper left the East End and took a job running the Edible Schoolyard Project for the Chez Panisse Foundation, that her influence went national, banishing junk food snacks, installing salad bars and contributing to the impressive eats at schools in both Berkeley (#7) and New Orleans (#5). Her TED Talk on school lunches has garnered nearly a million views.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Cooper told us during an interview for a 2011 story about school gardens. “The schools that do best have strong administration, staff and PTA support; they really thrive, and the garden becomes systemic in that it gets integrated into education programs.”

Most recently, Cooper has been bringing her special school-transforming sauce to the Rocky Mountains, where she’s the food services director of the Boulder school district, comprised of 50 schools, half of which have gardens. (Boulder rounded out the list at #10.)

“I’m thrilled they started doing this sort of list,” Cooper told us this week. “I’m already looking forward to seeing who’s on it next year.”

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