Monday, November 22, 2010

Lesson from Boulder

Ann Cooper with some of her young salad bar fans

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Ann Cooper is conducting a clinic in Boulder on how to rescue school food. Is anyone paying attention?

In remaking the lunch line in Boulder schools, Cooper has revealed the federally-subsidized school meals program as living somewhere in the stone age. Not merely under-funded, school kitchens are woefully under-managed and under-equipped to function in a digital age. No wonder they constantly run in the red. Schools are incapable of serving real food any more because they are mired in lack of imagination, lack of will and above all lack of professional know-how when it comes to producing meals with recognizable whole ingredients.

In other words, Cooper has proven that serving better food in school is not just about getting a bigger handout from Uncle Sam. Turning out wholesome meals, as opposed to the re-heated junk so many school districts pass off as food, can be done on the current budget. But getting there takes guts, hard work and brains--hardly the qualities that win advancement in public school bureacracies.

Why do schools need a hired gun like Ann Cooper to get the job done? Why are school food service directors so often the greatest obstacle to progress? In case after case, school district after school district, it is the career school food functionary who digs in her heels and shouts, "It can't be done! Kids won't eat healthier food! We have to feed them junk to make our program work!"

It's not just about money: where better school food is concerned, leadership is in critically short supply.

Cooper explodes the myth embraced by so many school food service directors that they must offer cheesy soft pretzels, Subway sandwiches, corn dogs and Eskimo pies to make ends meet. One of her first acts after taking over in Boulder was to abolish the a la carte foods the schools were serving. And it wasn't just because the food was bad. Trying to operate cafeterias like convenience stores, she found, was a drain on resources that did not yield the bounty that is popularly assumed.

"When you really look into all the loss in product, the storage problems, the waste, the time needed for invoicing, the staffing requirements, we don't believe it's really profitable," said Cooper. "And it takes away from the core mission," which is, of course, nourishing children.

Removing a la carte took a big bite out of Cooper's cash flow. But here's the surprise: She's recovering by selling better food and more of it. Her success is all the more remarkable because kids in Boulder do not depend on federally-subsidized meals. Only 18 percent of them qualify as low income. Should Cooper realize her goal of making her reformed food service self-sufficient in Boulder, it will be because kids actually like her home-made enchiladas and salad bars and can get along without Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and Gatorade every day. By implication, modeling after Cooper would only be easier in urban school districts where enrollment of low-income children is much higher.

Revamping school food is not for sissies. To wring waste and inefficiency from Boulder cafeterias, Cooper pushed long-time "lunch ladies" into a purely supportive role, cut deeply into their work hours, and brought in a crew of professional chefs to do the actual cooking. In the process she tapped a potentially vast reservoir of trained kitchen talent who would gladly sign on to the school food revolution--if only there were a revolution to sign on to.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Kate Adamick, a widely-traveled school food consultant who is a friend and occasional co-worker of Ann Cooper's, believes that lunch ladies--or "lunch teachers," as she prefers to call them--are the solution, not the problem. If we took the time to train them, and gave them the proper equipment, Adamick insists, they could serve meals cooked from scratch in schools coast-to-coast.

"The reality is that virtually no school district can afford the luxury of what the Boulder school district has," said Adamick. . "Ninety percent of this battle will be won if we can restore the pride and self respect of the lunch teachers. Our responsibility is to provide those people with the skills they need. "

Doing so, Adamick admits, would take much longer. Cooper chose not to wait.

Can the nation's school children afford to wait? If there's any one message that rings loud and clear from my travels through three very different school districts over the past year it is that waiting for a solution from the federal government is a fool's game. Congress has shown itself remarkably resistant to the idea of adding even a few pennies more to the school food budget. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, charged with administering the meals program, is a monument to bureaucratic inertia that seems better suited to enforcing its vast web of rules than pointing the way forward--unless that involves helping corporate interests put their brand of industrially processed foods on kids' cafeteria trays.

It would be hard to think of another government program so vital as school lunch that is subject to as much lip service and window dressing posing as reform. Michelle Obama's high-profile attack on childhood obesity, while generating lots of buzz around vegetables and school gardens, has driven white-jacketed chefs into paroxysms of grade-school cooking demonstrations, but thus far has failed to yield a political mandate for overhauling the nation's cafeterias. The School Nutrition Association, while ostensibly safeguarding the gustatory well-being of the nation's school children, is a relic of the last century, corrupted by industry influence, dishing out reheated chicken nuggets, pushing kids to drink more chocolate milk.

Indeed, in all three of the school districts that I have observed at close hand--the District of Columbia, Berkeley Calif., and now Boulder--change has not been handed down from Washington but has bubbled up from within outraged local communities. It takes parents, school administrators and local elected officials fed up with horrendous school food to turn things around. In the case of Berkeley and Boulder--communities primed for a school food uprising--Ann Cooper happened to be the catalyst who set radical change in motion. She not only knows how to do it, she has the charisma and leadership qualities to make it happen. In Boulder, parents were not only ready for Cooper, they had the deep pockets to make her vision a reality.

Unfortunately for the nation's other 15,000 school districts, there's only one Ann Cooper. Or maybe there's a solution we just haven't imagined yet.


  1. "Turning out wholesome meals, as opposed to the re-heated junk so many school districts pass off as food, can be done on the current budget."
    Not to take anything away from Ann Cooper, but nothing she has accomplished thus far proves this to be true. The added funds which Berkeley (along with about 1/3 of other school districts in California) receives from the Meals for Needy Pupils state revenue stream means that the changes which have been accomplished there are NOT being paid for solely with what I assume you mean by "the current budget" – that is, the $2.72 which the federal government currently provides to pay for a free lunch. Berkeley gets an additional $1.24 for every free and reduced price breakfast and lunch it serves, on top of the $2.72 from the feds. Without that extra money it is unlikely that Berkeley could continue its program, and that extra funding is not available to most other districts. What's more, the scratch cooking done in Berkeley is only possible because the citizens of Berkeley taxed themselves via a bond to build a fabulous central kitchen in which to cook. This also was not done within "the current budget" and it is important to acknowledge that not every community can afford to tax themselves this way to help provide their schools with a place to do nutritious scratch cooking. The price for a paid lunch, for the 60% of Berkeley students who don't qualify for free/reduced, is the highest I have ever seen - $3.25 for elementary lunch, $3.75 for middle school, and $4.25 for high school. Again, not every community could afford to send their kids to school with this much lunch money each day, even for those kids lucky enough to come from families which don't have to rely on free school lunch.
    I think we need to connect the dots here. In Boulder, it is too soon to be declaring that Ann has succeeded financially; her program still needs, according to an earlier report you posted, about 1,000 more students a day to eat school meals in order to break even. That is a huge number in a district of just 28,000, and while her corps of volunteers (which you also described in an earlier post) may have some success in getting more kids to eat school lunch, it is ingenuous to not count those volunteer hours as being outside of "the current budget", not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars being raised by the relatively well to do community of Boulder to help support the goal of getting the word out to families that they should use the school meal program. All of this PR, both the part that is donated by volunteers and the part that is paid for by fundraising, is an essential component of a meal program, and the success or failure of what Ann is trying to accomplish in Boulder will likely rest on these efforts. If Ann does succeed in getting the extra 1000 students a day she needs to eat school lunch, then she will have these volunteers and contributions to thank for it. But it is all IN ADDITION TO "the current budget."

  2. Not much mentioned in the media frenzy surrounding Cooper is what happened when her Lunch Lessons consulting company did a study for Santa Cruz City Schools in Northern California, but it provides an interesting counterpoint to Boulder. The Santa Cruz schools were serving some dreadful processed crap and losing money doing it; predictably, Lunch Lessons recommended a shift to scratch cooking, and that, as an interim measure, the school district contract with Revolution Foods, a company which provides meals cooked the day before and then heated up at school, using some organic and local ingredients. The district followed the plan laid out by Lunch Lessons, but a few months in, the deficit had grown so large that they were forced to abandon Revolution Foods and try to get a scratch cooking operation going on a much shorter timeline than expected. Last I heard (last spring) that operation was still losing money and the expected rise in participation never materialized. Now, if they had hired Ann to come in and oversee things, she perhaps could have organized the community as she is doing in Boulder, gotten some fundraising going, and sent out her volunteers and acolytes to preach the gospel of scratch cooked school meals, and maybe things would have been different. But as you have said, not every district has an Ann Cooper and the many resources she brings which are IN ADDITION TO "the current budget" – and it is important to acknowledge the essential role that all of those extras play in the success (or failure) of any attempt to improve school meals.

  3. Thanks, Dana.

    1) This series of articles was not about Berkeley. That was a previous series.

    2) Everything you say about Boulder was reported in excruitiating detail in the current series. Operational expenses, those that count against "the budget," are completely separate and apart from the other expenses you mentioned, which are paid for the most part by private donations. All of that was clearly spelled out by way of explaining how a program of this sort goes about trying to succede. I hope this would give those pause who might otherwise think that changing school food service from its current dreadful state is at all an easy thing to accomplish. Obviouslsy, it's not.

  4. These two sentences in this original blog post are not accurate:

    "Cooper has proven that serving better food in school is not just about getting a bigger handout from Uncle Sam. Turning out wholesome meals, as opposed to the re-heated junk so many school districts pass off as food, can be done on the current budget."

    No, it IS about getting what you dismissively refer to "a bigger handout from Uncle Sam" (aka, more funding). And it CANNOT "be done on the current budget."

    This misinformation really does harm to efforts to improve school food. Please retract explicitly and commit to avoiding further misinformation! Thank you.

  5. Really Ed, how can you reconcile claiming that Ann has fixed Boulder school food on "the current funding" while at the same time admitting that her program will not balance its budget until she gets 1000 more kids a day to eat school meals? By definition, as long as the program runs in the red, it is NOT succeeding on "the current funding."

  6. I never said that, Dana. You need to read the piece again.

  7. I think it is exactly what you said.

    In the post called "A Community Rallies Around School Food", you say Ann is still running a $360,000 deficit in her program, and that
    "She's upended the menu, replaced cheesy pretzels and Eskimo pies with chicken pot pie and pasta Bolognese, she's brought in a crew of professional cooks and aligned the kitchen's computer system with the 21st century. Now all she needs is about 1,000 more kids to open their wallets and start buying lunch instead of bringing it from home."

    Then in "Lessons from Boulder", you state "Cooper has proven that serving better food in school is not just about getting a bigger handout from Uncle Sam. Turning out wholesome meals, as opposed to the re-heated junk so many school districts pass off as food, can be done on the current budget."

    My point is that it is too early to declare that Cooper has "proven" that turning out wholesome meals can be done on the current budget, unless by current budget, you mean running a $360,000 deficit. To date, what she has proven is that school food can be reformed, but paying the higher cost for better food requires districts to be able to increase participation in the meal program; it remains to be seen whether her volunteer force of over 200 parents and interns can accomplish that.

  8. Right. I said it "can be" done. I didn't say she's doing it at the moment. You might want to talk to Kate Adamick about schools that are now cooking from scratch on the current budget after intervention from her. In fact, Adamick opposes the 6-cent-per-meal increase Congress proposes on grounds that the food industry would just raise prices. Nor is there any reason to think that schools wouldn't simply use that money to pay down some of their current deficit. According to the School Nutrition Association, the average school loses 35 cents on every lunch it serves.

  9. I believe I have made this point on your blog before but it is worth repeating - it is misleading to try to claim that because one school or district "can do" something, that proves that "everyone can do" it, because there are so many differences between districts (and schools). Some of the most significant are:

    Labor. Here in California, some districts pay around $9-10 an hour at first step for lowest level employees, while others like SF pay over $16/hr. This is based on the vast difference in cost of living in various places around the state (and around the nation.) We literally could not get people to work in our cafeterias if we only paid $10/hr, and $9 is out of the question because the city of SF's own minimum wage is currently $9.79/hr and will rise to $9.92/hr on Jan. 1. As labor represents about 45% of the typical district budget, the number of hours that 45% pays for can be the difference between being able to afford the longer hours that scratch cooking requires, and not being able to afford it.

    Resources. Does one district already have a central kitchen, or schools which are equipped to cook from scratch, while another district would have to raise the money to build or refurbish such facilities?
    Does one district get additional revenue, as Berkeley does from the Meals for Needy Pupils revenue stream, while another like SF does not?

    Demographics. How many students are qualified for free lunch in one district compared to another? As we have seen with the two districts where Ann Cooper has worked her "magic", districts with less than 50% free lunch students can try to balance their budgets by getting more of the 50+% of paying students to eat the school lunch (operant word being "try" - it isn't usually as successful as one would hope.) The number of families in relatively well to do Berkeley (with about 40% qualified for free lunch) who might be willing to send money to school for lunch each day is likely to be far higher than the number in nearby Oakland, with 70% qualified for free lunch.
    This also impacts the amount the schools can charge for paid lunch. Relatively affluent Berkeley can charge $4.25 for a high school lunch and some students can afford that, while in Oakland, the market will only bear a $3.25 price at high school.

    These are just some of the ways in which districts and schools differ from each other, that make it so misleading to make generalizations about how "if this school can do it, anyone can do it."

  10. All good points, Dana. That's the screwed-up nature of the school lunch program, alright. But I think Kate Adamick and Ann Cooper both would say there's lots of money and efficiency to be had in those back of the house operations that you aren't addressing here. Or has San Fran already had Kate or someone of her ilk in to perform an evaluation?