Chef Ann Cooper to Leave Berkeley Unified in June

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday January 20, 2009 - 06:47:00 PM

Berkeley’s self-named “renegade lunch lady,” Ann Cooper, will leave her position as Berkeley Unified School District’s nutrition services director and move to Colorado at the end of the school year to work with a school district there, Berkeley school officials confirmed Tuesday. 

After hiring Cooper for a three-year term in October 2005, the district extended her contract last October. 

Cooper said that her contract with the school district was up in June and that she would be working as a half time employee till the end of the school year. 

Local restaurateur Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation, which funded Cooper with a three-year grant to revamp nutritional services in the Berkeley public schools, will no longer be giving money to Berkeley’s lunch program, but Cooper said that wasn’t the reason why she was leaving. 

“I am leaving because it’s time,” she said. “I finished doing what I was brought in to do and it’s time I let others do the job. We have a really good manager—Marnie Posey—and executive chef—Bonnie Christensen—and the district will have to decide who will take over my role.” 

Cooper also credited the rest of her staff—including her sous chefs—for their excellent work over the years. 

“I only had a three-year contract and I always knew I would be leaving at some point,” said Cooper, who will be consulting with the Boulder Valley School district in Colorado and working on her nonprofit Food-Family-Farming Foundation after she takes off from Berkeley. 

A press release on the website of the Boulder Valley School District—which is about four times the size of Berkeley Unified—announces its efforts to start the School Food Project, which, with the help of a $100,000 contribution from Boulder residents and district parents Robin and Kevin Luff, would fund most of the six-month consulting contract with Cooper, who heads Lunch Lessons LLC.  

The community-wide effort seeks to make Boulder Valley school breakfasts and lunches healthier, not unlike what Cooper sought to do in Berkeley. 

Cooper, whose lunch lessons changed cafeteria culture in the Berkeley public schools, will leave behind a legacy that involves a transfat- and frozen food-free diet of made-from-scratch meals. 

When she was hired by the school district with the help of the grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation to revamp nutrition services in the schools, Cooper banned transfats, preservatives, refined flour, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white bread, generic hot dogs and hamburgers and extremely salty foods, encouraging parents and educators to buy cook and feed differently. Her efforts won her national media attention, including a profile in the New Yorker. 

Cooper’s menus boasted of gourmet dishes like rotini with fresh tomato sauce and herb roasted chicken or fresh fruit and low-fat milk, meals that Berkeley Unified students had never before seen at school. 

Working on a tight budget proved to be a challenge for Cooper, and she was often seen at Berkeley Board of Education meetings making her case for additional funding for staff, facilities and ingredients. 

Her vision, as she stated again and again in earlier interviews with the Planet, was not only to improve the way children ate at Berkeley Unified but to create a blueprint that would change school lunches nationwide. 

“We wish we could keep her forever but we always knew that she was going to leave after a while,” said Mark Coplan, the district spokesperson. “That was the plan from the very beginning.” 

Coplan said that when the district’s former nutrition services director Karen Candito left to work in one of the Alameda County jails, Cooper had been working as a consultant on the School Lunch Initiative. 

After she was hired, Cooper worked with a team of sous chefs and cooks to prepare hot meals for children at 16 of the city’s public schools. 

Over the years, she implemented the Universal Breakfast program, which provides free breakfast for every school in Berkeley, started salad bars at all the school and a breakfast bar at Berkeley High School and most recently oversaw the opening of the $8.7 million King Dining Commons, which serves as a cafeteria for King students and the central kitchen for the entire district. 

“I have really, really enjoyed Berkeley but it’s time to do something else,” she said, adding that she hoped that the food services department would be able to sustain itself by the time she left. “That’s one of the biggest things I will be working on for the remainder of the time I am here—getting kids to eat more at school.”