Chef Ann Foundation - Making fresh healthy food accessible to children everywhere

Dalia

Hi, Chef Ann, thank you so much for joining me.

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

My pleasure. I'm really happy to be here.

 

Dalia

I'm really excited to have you on once I started really digging into your bio and looking at the Foundation website, I got a little overwhelmed. Like it's hard to know where to even start because your experience covers a wide range of topics and a good chunk of time. So why don't we just start with how you got into nutrition in the first place? What sparked your interest in food? Why did you want to be a chef?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Well, two different things, why I wanted to be a chef and how I get into nutrition. So when I was 20 years old, I was living in Telluride, Colorado being a ski bum and I needed to support myself. I got offered a job as an assistant breakfast cook, and just fell in love with food and cooking. Eventually, four years later, when the Culinary Institute of America and from there, stuff on cruise ships did a couple world cruises. Now it's more than 45 years later. So I've spent my entire life as a chef and a cook. But I get into school food 20 years ago, and kind of by accident, and I'd written four books, but one was Bitter Harvest. It really started to look at why food makes us sick, and who owns the food supply and how anyone can own the food supply.  I got asked to apply for a job at a school I was asked to take over school.  I initially said no, I'm not a lunch lady and they said come and see this is something really special. So I did and I got my first school food job 20 years ago.

 

Dalia   

Wow. And the book. So the books came before school nutrition, or at least the first one.

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Yeah, the first three came before I did school food.

 

Dalia   

And even getting to that point that must be an interesting transition. What made you realize that you had so much information to share, you really needed to put it down in printed form?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Well, the first book was called "A Woman's Place Is in the Kitchen": The Evolution of Women Chefs. I had the idea for it when I was still in culinary school. When I felt like I had spent my entire career, my entire life, thinking that, you know, women should have a place and you know, hating the term barefoot and pregnant and, you know, and then all of a sudden, I realized that women really did have a place in the kitchen. And women were really responsible for so much of the culinary world that we know today. But there were no professional women chefs, when I went to culinary school in 1977. There were only three women in my class and there were no female culinary instructors. So the world was a very different place. And that's how I thought about writing my first book.

 

Dalia   

That's really interesting. I know that where I work, it seems like food service is very mixed gender wise, but I'm not really familiar with more of the formal end of it.  Have you seen a shift? Do you think we're where we need to be?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Well, they're certainly more than there were when I came out of culinary school. It's certainly not 50%. I think that there's still room for improvement.

 

Dalia   

Right, that makes sense, as with so many things. So in addition to working hands on in the kitchen, you've also branched into speaking, we've already spoken about the books that you've authored, what types of speaking engagements do you take on, What's your general mission when it comes to reaching out to the through your public speaking?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

You know, it really depends what the event is, and what the organizers are looking for. A lot of times, it's sort of motivational sometime, usually it's under the umbrella of school food or healthy food, or kids in food, something like that. But it's really what the audience is looking for. So sometimes it's really specific to getting scratch cooked food in schools. Sometimes it's about motivating people to work in their own communities to get better food for kids, but it's all at the end of the day, it's all about kids eating healthier and being healthier.

 

Dalia   

So when you look at improvements that we need in child nutrition, you're looking at beyond just school nutrition, you're also looking at what the community as a whole needs to do for our children.

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Absolutely.

 

Dalia   

So as far as how we're doing in school nutrition, what steps do you still see that need to be made? What is your current personal vision for school nutrition?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Well, first of all, we have to stop the current administration rolling back the guidelines or softening them or weakening them or whatever, you know, terms you want to use. Coming out of the Obama administration, we had a pretty good path to healthier food in schools, and some of that has slid backwards.  I think that that's really unfortunate. I hope we can regain the ground we've lost something that just happened in the last week or so is that the with the administration's new budget or they are considering cutting 3 million people off SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, and an unintended consequence of that is that half a million or more kids who currently get free reduced meals in school, because they are direct certified, will no longer be direct certified and now there's just one more barrier to feeding hungry kids. So now I really believe that we need to make the health of our kids a priority for our entire nation.

 

Dalia   

I definitely agree, I guess where people start to differ is how we do that. So since sometimes, we're still trying to get the minimum calories in how do we prioritize the quality of the food when we're just trying to get the calories? Is it that we really shouldn't be looking at them at them as two separate objectives?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

No, I think they're the same objective. I think it's not just about calories, I think there has to be quality calories. I mean, you know, a bag of potato chips is 100 calories or more, you know, getting kids to eat potato chips should not be the goal, you know, instead of 100 calories of potato chips, let's give them 100 calories of fruits and vegetables. So I don't think that those goals should be divergent. I think they're very compatible. I think we need to work both to make sure that hungry kids have food, but that the quality of the food is as high as possible.

 

Dalia   

That's a really good way to explain it. I like that that makes it very clear that quality is essential, when you phrase it that way. So what does high quality food mean to you from the culinary perspective?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

What we really think because this is, you know, my personal opinion and really, part of the vision of the foundation is that we want to serve kids scratch cooked food. This means food cooked from whole ingredients, eliminating as much as possible any highly processed ingredients. So for instance, you know, instead of serving a kid chicken nuggets, let's serve them roast chicken thigh, you know, instead of serving kids, some really highly processed chain pizza, if you want to serve pizza, make real pizza, instead of serving cans from cocktail, serve the have salad bars, and we'll have the kids get fresh fruits and vegetables at lunch every day. Instead of serving chocolate milk serve organic white milk mean, there's, we just need to feed kids real food made from real ingredients.

 

Dalia   

Now, what sorts of obstacles do people generally report when you present the idea of scratch cooking to them? I know in our district, we worry about the skill set of our employees has completely changed from what it was a generation ago, people were familiar with cooking. Everybody was at least a home cook at a minimum and that's not the case anymore. But beyond that, what objections? Or what obstacles do people bring up?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

You know, there's really five major obstacles that anybody making changes towards batch cooking has to overcome food, where are we going to get it and make sure it's good finances? How do we pay for it? What do you do if you don't have kitchens? Human Resources? How do you get everybody trained? You know, to your point, and marketing and education. How do you get the kids to eat it if you've overcome the first four? So in some way we all have to deal with that set of issues and some of us might be further along in some areas than others. I mean, some school districts might have great kitchens, but might need training. Some school districts might have trained cooks, but really need to work on marketing and education to the students and the parents. Those are the five major areas and we all need to slowly but together work on them.

 

Dalia   

What is the best way to get started, if a district is interested in more scratch cooking, are you saying would you should be looking at purchasing like a whole chicken and processing that or already frozen, but just a whole chicken with no additional ingredients like in your previous example?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

You know, it really depends where the school district is that there's not a silver bullet, and there's not one size fits all. You know, if, as a first step, if you want it to move from chicken nuggets to bone and chicken, depending on the skill set of your staff and the equipment you have, you might decide to use clean label pre-cooked chicken that's already cooked, but that you can put your own sauce on or put your own flavor profile on and just heat it up to temp that might be a good first step depending on the equipment and the skill set. If you get a staff that to understand how to do that, to be able to receive the chicken and have it defrosted and make a sauce to go on it or even put a sauce on it and get the temp and serve it to the kids. That could be a whole year just getting that system done. Then the following year, you might move to a frozen raw product. Then the following year, you might move to a fresh raw product. So you know, depending on where you are, there's a path that you would move towards it's a continuum.

 

Dalia   

Now, when it comes to taste, what do we lose when we're not doing scratch cooking, because I know there are a lot of really fantastic products out there that are convenient, and even and use now it's common for people to say they're cooking, feel like they're cooking, and they're really just returning, what are we losing, if we're not doing it from fresh?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Well, it depends what the product is but by and large, most of the value added products are processed, and some of them very highly processed. So it's not so much what you're losing but the unintended consequence. So if you buy a package, pasta sauce, you might be able to get a really lovely packaged pasta sauce, but most of them are very high in sodium, they might have numerous other ingredients to keep them fresh, or you could make a tomato sauce from scratch, and you get to control all the ingredients that are it in it.  You control everything that goes in at the salt level, the flavor profile. So cooking from scratch, not only helps to eliminate highly processed ingredients and ingredients of concern that we may not want to consume. But it also allows us the flexibility to change flavor profiles.

 

Dalia   

That's something I'm really interested in because I think people interested in nutrition are familiar with the ingredients that you don't want that are hard to control for when you're buying something that's already prepared. But I don't think as many people know about the benefit of having control over the flavor profiles and how that could possibly help with inventory management and serving things in your inventory in different ways. So is that something that you can speak a little bit more about?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Yeah, back to my chicken example. If you're buying a pre-packaged, processed chicken, you could might be able to get an Asian flavor or you know, a Mexican flavor. But if you're getting a raw, even if it's pre-cooked chicken product, you could make it you know, 10 different kinds of Asian or you could do Mexican, but maybe you want to do Peruvian, or maybe you want to do Southwest or, you know, you can take the one product to chicken and turn it into 10 different menu items. And I think that with different profiles, and that helps us to be able to interact with different ethnicities in our school, kids coming from different demographics, with one product. And I think that that really helps with inventory control management and also really helps us with a increased participation because we're really giving kids flavors that they may be very used to.

 

Dalia   

That's a really exciting idea. So when you have concerns about cost as an obstacle and waste, if you maybe are afraid your kids won't accept what you're doing playing around with the flavor profiles, I see can be one way you can try and control for that.

 

Chef Ann Cooper    

Absolutely.

 

Dalia   

Now, what sorts of resources does the Foundation have available to support districts in reaching the vision. Can you say a little bit more to you about what the mission the vision of the foundation is?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

So the mission vision of the chef and foundation is to support school districts all across the country to serve healthy scratch cooked food to their students to serve healthier, delicious food to their students. But we really want to support school districts cooking from scratch and that might be speed scratch, and it might be somewhere on the continuum. We want to get away from processed foods and as far as resources, the biggest resource that the foundation has is the Lunch Box, which is a web portal that has almost 400 explodable recipes that includes the nutritionals, costings, pictures. It's really great to be able to look up and utilize recipes from the Lunch Box. We also have manuals on marketing to kids, we have all kinds of information on procurement. We have manuals on doing salad bars and Iron Chef competitions for kids. It's really a comprehensive manual on everything that you want to know in school food using real ingredients. Additionally, on a Chef Ann website, we have our granting program where we grant salad bars to schools, we have a program called the School Food Institute that has 11 online courses. And we have another project called Get Schools Cooking, where school districts apply for a three year assessment and planning grant to help them move with technical assistance from wherever they are towards a more scratch cooked environment.

 

Dalia  

How would you define the difference between speed scratch and just scratch?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

Let's do a simple, you know continuum. Spaghetti and marinara sauce, so a fully scratch cook meal would mean you would make the pasta sauce from scratch, not necessarily fresh tomatoes, but canned tomatoes, but making the sauce from scratch, cooking it down adding your flavors. Beautiful tomato sauce, cooking your pasta from scratch. That's a complete scratch cooked meal. However, speed scratch might be buying a canned or frozen tomato sauce product and using that with fresh cooked pasta. Or you could buy even a frozen cooked pasta and add a fresh tomato sauce. So it's taking part of an item and using a value added product to help you finish it and maybe even give you some variability with flavor profiles, but maybe not cook every piece of it.

 

Dalia   

Okay, thank you. I hear that term all the time. And I just wanted to get another clear definition because probably different people are understanding that different ways. So it sounds like there's really a lot of support that the Foundation has made available for people who maybe have limited funding and want to get started with offering more fresh fruits and vegetables with the salad bar. So when are those opportunities open? Should we be looking at the beginning of the year are they available all year?

 

Chef Ann Cooper  

So applying for salad bars, you can do that anytime. We grant salad bars all throughout the year. But the largest proportion of salad bars that we grant usually happens in January. So I would recommend that once schools get open and the dust settles a little bit it’s a great time to apply for salad bars.

 

Dalia   

Fantastic. That's a great tip. And as far as far as the lunch box goes, are all of these resources available to the public? Is there a monthly membership fee, or which ones and these tools are available for everyone and which ones are premium?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

So everything on the Lunch Box itself and on the salad bar website are absolutely free. There's only one of all of our tools that has a cost and that's the School Food Institute. So classes actually cost money. We do have scholarships available, however, but everything else is free and in the public domain.

 

Dalia   

Okay, that's great to know. So what is different about the School Food Institute? So I'm sure that if there has to be a premium for it, a lot of time went into developing it. What is it? Who is the intended audience?

 

Chef Ann Cooper   

The intended audience of the School Food Institute is school food professionals and advocates that are working in the school food arena, and maybe government officials as well. It is done at a pretty high professional level. There's 11 courses currently we will be making more.  Most of them are right, 90 minutes courses, except for school for one, which is two and a half hours I think. They're taken online. They include homework, they include different questions to answer, a test at the end. They are credited under the USDA as part of certification now with the professional development. They're very intensive, individualized learning experiences for people who want to learn more about school food, have certain interest, or just really care about what we're feeding our kids.

 

Dalia   

In your opinion, is it possible for the food we offer in schools to parallel what you might get in a higher end restaurant? Or is that just outside of our reach because of budget constraints and, you know, human resources constraints?

 

Chef Ann Cooper  

Well, I'm not sure that we're trying to mirror high end restaurants. But what I can say is it's totally within school food reach to serve healthy, delicious food based on whole ingredients. And it's totally within our reach to serve, you know, bulk organic milk and salad bars in every school and hormone and antibiotic free meats and chickens and fresh fruits and vegetables all that's within our reach whether we're ever going to make meals that are the same as a restaurant that has 10 cooks in the kitchen. You know, I don't think that that's reasonable. But healthy, delicious food, absolutely.

 

Dalia  

Thank you so much for coming on. Is there a final thought you would like to leave everyone with or a message that you hope would reach all districts in the US?

 

Chef Ann Cooper  

Yes, I think really important for us all to remember is that it should be a birthright in our country that every child every day has healthy delicious food in school, and no child has ever hungry. That should be all of our mantras, what we all work towards. That's what I think we should all be doing.

 

Dalia   

Thank you so much for coming on. I totally agree.

 

Chef Ann Cooper  

My pleasure.