Chef Ann Cooper has long been a champion for better school lunches—and she's not done.

American Food Hero 2019: Chef Ann Cooper

Who she is: Founder of the Chef Ann Foundation and Director of Food Services, Boulder Valley School District

What she does: Making School Food Good Food

In high school, no one would have voted Ann Cooper most likely to succeed. In fact, she didn't even graduate. She did drugs, was thrown out of several schools, then hitchhiked out to Telluride to be a ski bum. It was only when she got a job slinging breakfast and fell in love with cooking that she, unwittingly, took her first step toward making lunchroom food healthier for America's children.

From line cook, Cooper went to the Culinary Institute of America and on to trailblazing victories: she was one of the first women to cook on a cruise line; and one of the early voices championing sustainability and the dangers of America's food supply (which she chronicled in her book, Bitter Harvest). Back then, in the 1990s, it wasn't obvious what it all added up to, until her circuitous career path landed her in a school cafeteria.

You need an odd combination of skills to succeed in the byzantine world of school food: a mastery of budgets, a passion for cooking at scale, and a deep outrage that it should be so hard to feed students well. Cooper had them all. After a stint cooking at a private school in New York, she was lured by chef Alice Waters-America's doyenne of sustainability and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project-to Berkeley, California, in 2005 to shake up the school food program there. Cooper didn't disappoint.

Chef Ann stands in the lunchroom in a chef's coat holding an apple

She eliminated all unhealthy trans fats, preservatives, refined flour, high-fructose corn syrup and salt-heavy foods and replaced them with made-from-scratch meals like Buffalo chicken sliders, pasta with fresh tomato sauce and Southwest quinoa salad. She added plenty of produce and nixed juice and sugary beverages in favor of low-fat milk. Her radical approach, unheard of at a time when virtually all school food was highly processed and heat-and-eat (as it often is even today), proved that tasty, nutritious food was possible on a shoestring. It wasn't long before she was nationally known as the Renegade Lunch Lady.

But it's what Cooper has done since she made her name that makes her a standout. She could have moved from district to district, fixing one cafeteria at a time. Instead, she settled in Boulder and launched the Chef Ann Foundation-which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year-to democratize change.

Its first project was The Lunchbox, an online resource to help cafeteria staff transition to scratch cooking. Next came Salad Bars to Schools, which has raised more than $14 million to implement (what else?) salad bars. In 2019 alone, 250 schools will get theirs, bringing the total to nearly 6,000 salad bars across the country. "For decades it was canned beans and corn and now we have thousands of salad bars that make such a difference to the kids," she says. "When you give kids a choice about what is on their plates, they try new things and eat better." But what Cooper is most proud of: "That I'm not the only renegade lunch lady anymore."

3 cool facts about Chef Ann Cooper

  • Ann has cooked for the Grateful Dead.
  • She was one of the first women to attend the Culinary Institute of America. "I was one of three women in my class of 72 students and there weren't any female culinary instructors. The kitchens of America were not necessarily female-friendly in the 1970s."
  • Her food heroes: "Alice Waters for never compromising on healthy food for kids. Marion Nestle for always bringing to light all of the real issues around food. Michael Pollan for teaching all of us so much about real food. And Michelle Obama for supporting and promoting healthy food for all kids and bringing the conversation to the national stage."