The Renegade Lunch Lady’s Cafeteria Crusade

“Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper, pictured left, is on a crusade to bring healthier options to school lunchrooms across the country. Cooper, a classically trained chef, author, educator and now nutrition services director, is revolutionizing the way American kids eat at school. With the prevalence of childhood obesity and 30 million kids enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, the lunchroom may be the best place to effect change.

Last year Cooper started Food Family Farming Foundation, a nonprofit founded to change the school food landscape by developing a sustainable model for schools nationwide. In order to promote and carry out F3′s mission, Cooper, with help from Whole Foods Market, launched The Lunch Box, a Web portal offering a free online toolkit with recipes, menus, calendars, training materials and other resources. This year, Cooper is focusing her efforts on putting a salad bar in every public school lunchroom in America. Cooper wants kids everywhere to have access to fresh, wholesome, made-from-scratch foods and believes that salad bars are the answer.

To get the ball rolling, The Great American Salad Bar Project, a partnership between F3 and Whole Foods, is giving away free salad bar kits to 300-plus schools within 50 miles of a Whole Foods. Through online and in-store donations, the initiative has set a fundraising goal of $750,000 — enough money to fund 300 salad bars — between now and September 30. Cooper hopes to surpass that goal and give away at least 400 salad bars — a distinct possibility, given that the project has already raised more than $680,000 with more than three weeks to go.

From September 1 through November 1, school administrators can apply online at the Salad Bar Project website for the free salad bar kit. To be eligible, schools must be within a 50 mile-radius of a Whole Foods and demonstrate a commitment to promoting and sustaining the salad bar if selected. Once all the grant applications have been collected, F3 will review them and announce the recipients by January 15, 2011. The application process is not complex but requires that a school meet a set of criteria, including need, anticipated impact, commitment and sustainability. Schools will be responsible for food and maintenance, but The Lunch Box offers helpful tools on sustaining and marketing the salad bars.

Cooper recognizes that there are many deserving communities that are not within 50 miles of a Whole Foods but sees this as phase one of an ongoing project. Visitors to the website have the option of donating to a general salad bar fund for schools everywhere. Depending on the amount of money raised in that account, schools in other parts of the country will have the opportunity to apply.

Another idea is to encourage schools to fundraise on their own using the foundation’s resources. F3 would build a fundraising Web page and supply the salad bar at a deeply discounted cost. Cooper is also planning to approach other partners, companies that may have a greater reach than Whole Foods. “I think we may very well end up being a service for schools all across the country,” says Cooper. “I think that this is the tip of the iceberg. I think people are really going to want to participate and are excited about trying to get salad bars in every school in America.” In the meantime, schools in underserved and out-of-reach communities can access valuable resources on The Lunch Box website.

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