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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

What's on your kid's school lunch menu next week? Have you taken a look? Yeah, pull it out. Pull it out. Pull out that lunch menu because you may want to have it on hand to compare your school lunch program with the one that's going to be suggested by my next guest.

Why the scrutiny of school lunches? Because childhood obesity is a large and growing problem in the U.S. Our kids are getting fatter. They're getting sicker, suffering from diseases like Type 2 diabetes that usually don't strike until adulthood.

Now, think about that stereotypical school lunch. Maybe it's a cheeseburger on a white bun. You got your Tater Tots. You got a whole carton of whole milk and a brownie for dessert. Sound familiar? And if you got any fruit, where is it? It's going to be in a can swimming in sweet syrup.

Well, that certainly was the kind of lunches that they were serving many, many years ago. Maybe those things are changing because we've got to make our lunches better for our kids, make our kids healthier in the process. Can we do this? Will this make them healthier?

Joining me now is a chef charged with feeding kids in Berkley, California's public schools better lunches. She's made better lunches. Imagine the challenges that she faces in coming up with a new menu. Are kids going to give up those nachos without a fight?

Ann Cooper is a chef and the author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, published this year by Collins. She is also the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, California, and she joins us from that city.

Welcome to the program, Chef Cooper.

Ms. ANN COOPER (Chef and Author): Thank you for having me here. I'm really excited.

FLATOW: Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you want to pull out your lunch for next week, and maybe we'll compare, and we can have Chef Cooper go through it with us.

For those of us who haven't eaten in a school cafeteria lately, did - does that lunch I described mirror what we see mostly around America today?

Ms. COOPER: If not worse. I think...

FLATOW: Worse?

Ms. COOPER: Yeah, I think it's worse. When I first came to Berkeley, all of the food - I've only been here 11 months - all of the food came prepackaged in plastic wrappers, frozen. You actually opened these cases, took these plastic food wrappers with something in them like corn dogs or grilled cheese sandwiches, put them in the oven in the plastic, kept them in the warmers in the plastic, and handed them in the kid - to the kids - in the plastic. And that was lunch.

FLATOW: What a role that - a role model that was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COOPER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: For kids who expect that when they get home or to go out to the fast food store themselves.

Ms. COOPER: Yes, absolutely. And I think we need to understand that, at least tacitly, everything a child sees as accessible to them at school is part of their educational experience. So if that's what we're feeding them...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. COOPER: ...at least tacitly we're telling them that that's good food.

FLATOW: But you were able to turn this whole thing around, weren't you?

Ms. COOPER: Well, I wouldn't say it as past tense. I would say I'm trying really hard and working at it every day with a group of dedicated people to try and turn it around. But it's not fixed yet. But we're working hard to fix it.

FLATOW: And you're able to get - whereas you described that 99 percent of the school food was packaged in these wrappers that go get nuked in a microwave, you were able to turn it around so that 90 percent is fresh food now.

Ms. COOPER: That's right. We cook from scratch every day in our district, and the things we don't make, like pizza crust that we serve once every two weeks in the elementary schools, we have made by a local company, a baking company -FullBloom Baking Company - that's making it for us with 60 percent whole grains and spelt flour and things like that. So we're trying to take things that kids do like and make them a healthier alternative.

FLATOW: And as you say, you're eating locally.

Ms. COOPER: And we're eating locally as much as we can. We're buying from local farmers. We're supporting local businesses. We're trying to keep the money we spend, our school district money, in our community.

FLATOW: So give me next week's lunch.

Ms. COOPER: Okay. Actually, we've produced a beautiful calendar. I wrote the menus for the entire year, next year - for the entire year, for this whole year, and they're in these beautiful calendars that are tied to the seasons. And we have a vegetable of the month, and this month's vegetable is tomatoes. So - and I'll give the elementary school menu.

FLATOW: Sure.

Ms. COOPER: One day we have veggie or fresh meatloaf - and I'll tell you about that meat in a minute - with fresh tomato sauce, oven-roasted carrots, fresh fruit, low-fat milk, and an organic whole wheat roll. Another day we have...

FLATOW: I'm coming to your school to eat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COOPER: Another day we have roast herb chicken or roast tofu - we always have a vegetarian entrée - with mashed potatoes, sautéed squash - and of course the mashed potatoes are real, not potato pearls - fresh fruit, and again, whole-fat milk.

Another day we have chicken or vegetable quesadillas with refried beans, stir-fry vegetables, always fresh fruit. We have salad bars in all of our schools. In the high school and middle schools they have a number of other offerings, but everything is either produced by a local producer or we make it in-house.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Ann Cooper, who is a chef and the author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. But what about soft drinks and, you know, in the soft drink machines or the dispensers or the sugary things -have they been taken out of the school lunch...

Ms. COOPER: Gone.

FLATOW: They're gone.

Ms. COOPER: Gone. We have no vending...

FLATOW: What kind of fight did you have over that?

Ms. COOPER: Well, actually, I have to say that that wasn't my fight. The vending machines left before I got here.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. COOPER: But we don't serve any kind of beverages that it's high in sugar. We don't serve - the only juices we serve are 100 percent juice. We have nothing with high fructose corn syrup and trans fats. All that's gone.

FLATOW: So what's still there? What's your toughest fight?

Ms. COOPER: Well, hell, I can tell you what one of the tough fights were: nachos, by the way.

FLATOW: Nachos and the melted Velveeta, I'll bet.

Ms. COOPER: Well, yeah, it was. When I came we had a nacho on the menu, and it was a trans fat-laden chip, topped with day-glo orange cheese, fake cheese something. I don't know what it was. That day-glo orange stuff that comes out of a can. And it...

FLATOW: Turn the lights off and the food is still glowing.

Ms. COOPER: Yeah, yeah. And it probably glows on the inside, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And that's what they were. And took them off the menu, and in one particular school we saw participation go down. And we started working with the kids, and we found a baked chip with flaxseed, no trans fats, fairly healthy, and we came up with a recipe for nachos that the kids liked, with real cheese and either vegetables or beef. And you know, we did some tastings with them, and it went really well.

So we work with the kids, and we try and do tastings and try and find things that - you know, we have sort of three masters. There's not enough money, so it has to fit the financial model. The kids have to eat it, because of course that's why we're here, is to feed them. And it has to be healthy and nutritious and delicious. So you know, three things have to be balanced.

FLATOW: So have you hit that trifecta? I guess you have.

Ms. COOPER: Well, we're working on it. You know, putting delicious food on the plate is not enough with children. We absolutely have to have an educational component, and here in Berkeley we have something called the School Lunch Initiative, which is a collaboration between the school district, the Chez Panisse Foundation and the Center for Ecoliteracy. And I say we have three legged - a three-legged stool.

One leg is the cafeteria food, and it has to be delicious and nutritious. One leg is cooking and gardening classes, and we have cooking and gardening classes in 13 of our 16 schools. And one leg is academic curriculum. So we have to work with the kids. We have to educate them. We have to educate the parents and the community at large. So there's a big social marketing and educational component to changing a food system.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones - 1-800-989-8255. Is it Sahab(ph) in Saratoga?

SAHAB (Caller): Yes.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SAHAB: Hi, am I on-air?

FLATOW: Yes, you are. Go ahead.

SAHAB: Hi, you see I'm in sixth grade, and I have lunch in Saratoga, California. I'm just having my school lunch, actually, and I believe it's very unhealthy and that there should be a more healthy component to it.

FLATOW: What kind of food do they offer you for lunch?

SAHAB: Pizza and spaghetti, and I believe that's not healthy. I like more veggies and fruits.

FLATOW: Hmm. Ann Cooper, what do you think? He's in Saratoga.

Ms. COOPER: Well, I think we absolutely need that. We serve fresh fruits and fresh vegetable at every single meal. As I said, we have a salad bar in every school except one, and that one's going in next week. And even with the youngest kids - everyone said you can't give kids a salad bar, they'll make a mess. I mean everyone had a million reasons why they don't work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COOPER: Our kids love our salad bar. I was speaking to a group of food-service directors yesterday, and a school district that's twice our size was spending a quarter as much as we are on fresh fruits and vegetables. It's really important to expose kids to fruits and vegetables and give them lots of choices. And...

FLATOW: Well, I have Sahab on the phone. What can you tell him to do to effect a change in his school lunch program?

Ms. COOPER: Go on strike. Get all your friends together and tell the food-service people that you don't like the food, and until you get better food, you're not going to buy it. Listen, these...

SAHAB: I have a question to the host.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SAHAB: How does he - I would like to be - I would like to talk to, also because - I would like to talk about something else. You see, I've been in the newspaper recently, in the local newspaper, because I'm interested in history and politics. And so I've been in the local newspaper just about a day ago.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

SAHAB: This (unintelligible) was in the newspaper. And I was wondering if you ever need any help like with the program or anything. I could be there to help.

FLATOW: He wants to help out, and he's got political connections it sounds like.

Ms. COOPER: Well, you know what, my email is on my Web site. My Web site is lunchlessons.org. You email me and we'll figure out how to work together.

FLATOW: There you go, Sahab. Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. It's got - you've got menus in there too, doesn't it, Ann?

Ms. COOPER: In the…

FLATOW: Recipes.

Ms. COOPER: Yes. We have recipes in Lunch Lessons. There's about 65 recipes. They're broken down to breakfast, snack, and lunch. And all the lunch recipes could also be made for dinner.

FLATOW: How did you crack the economics problem? I would think that, you know, school boards are always tight on money. They're going to say, well, it's a great idea but we can't afford text books. We're not going to buy all these fresh homegrown produce.

Ms. COOPER: Well, I am blessed to be working in a community that really supports and understands the importance of school food and good eating and the connection to agriculture.

And as all change agents do, I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me. There are many people in Berkeley who have worked for decades to try and make these changes. And Alice Waters really started the revolution here some 15 years ago now.

So the school district here - in the school district here we have a little more money than other school districts because we're supported by the community at large.

But a lot of things you can just do. I mean it doesn't necessarily always cost more money. I think we have to be really smart how we spend our money, make food that's not going to get thrown away. And all of us know from going to the grocery store, if you're going to buy just a whole raw chicken, per pound it costs way less than chicken fingers.

So we try and use whole products. We try and buy the smartest we can. And that's part of the way we get better food into the schools.

FLATOW: Jim in Grand Haven, Michigan. Hi.

JIM (Caller): Hi. I just - actually you kind of took one of my comments, but I was going to say part of it is economic. I'm a schoolteacher at a kind of blue-collar district in Michigan. And I was just going to say that economics plays a part in getting healthy food.

But I also wanted to describe what some of the lunches are in my district. We have a free and reduced breakfast and lunch program. And the breakfast always has as an option of doughnuts and pop-tart knock-offs. And lunch always has as an option of some really greasy pizza.

Ms. COOPER: Eww.

JIM: It's always an option there. And of course there are some kids that have it every single day. It's pretty bad. Some of those lunches you were describing at the beginning are still out there. They're still being handed out.

Ms. COOPER: One of the things that we really have to understand is that what a lot of schools do because of the financial issues is that they have is they sell competitive foods.

JIM: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COOPER: So a school might have a fairly healthy hot lunch program perhaps, and then they sell tater tots and french fries and awful pizza and doughnuts and whatever. And that is just wrong.

JIM: Yeah.

Ms. COOPER: It's wrong to do that.

JIM: And I think…

FLATOW: But let me ask - let me ask both of you. First, let me remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

What about these kids who get this at home? And if they don't get this kind of stuff they're eating at home, they're just not going to eat lunch. You know, is it better not to eat lunch than to eat the food that they don't like?

JIM: Oh, absolutely not. I think it's better that they actually eat, because some of these kids are coming from really bad home situations. And they need to eat.

Ms. COOPER: Well…

JIM: But at the same time we can give them something better.

Ms. COOPER: …well, we can. And here's the thing. If you have a 10-year-old kid that comes home and says, I'm not going to learn math or science. I don't want to. You don't turn to the kid and go, cool, dude, you don't have to. You know, you say, you know what? These are things you have to do. I'm an adult. We're going to do this together. I'll help you, but you're going to do it.

If that same 10-year-old kid comes home and says, I'm never going to eat a fruit or vegetable, I'm only going to eat Chicken McNuggets and tater tots, we don't say, cool, dude. We are the parents. We are responsible for the lifelong health of our children. And it is a process and it is educational. But we can't advocate control to children, you know, when they're not ready for it.

FLATOW: Do we have any evidence yet? Because this is still an early movement that feeding kids healthier lunches makes any difference in this fight against obesity.

Ms. COOPER: We do not have specific medical research at this point. There's some anecdotal stuff. One of the things we're doing here in Berkeley under the auspices of the School Lunch Initiative is a pretty big evaluation. There's two evaluations going to be starting in the next two months here.

And that's exactly what we want to try and quantify is really not only obesity but also performance in school and a lot of other health criteria.

So it hasn't been done because nobody's really wanted to pay for it. But now there are foundations that are stepping up to the plate to say this is really important and we'll pay for this evaluation process.

FLATOW: So how do you get the ball rolling? I mean Berkeley's the hot seat of activism; it's been there for 40 years. How do we other counties get the ball rolling here?

Ms. COOPER: Well, I think that the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, has said two things this year that if all of our listeners remember nothing else, this is the thing I'd ask you to remember, because I think this is the way we get the ball rolling.

The CDC has said that of the babies born in 2000, the six-year-old babies who started school this week all across America, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African-American and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetime, many of them before they graduate high school.

And of those same six-year-old babies in first grade this week, the entire generation may be the first in our country's history to die at a younger age than their parents. How can we not? We have to see that, you know, we're at the tipping point, to coin a phrase. It is the tipping point of the scale.

If we don't make this a priority, if we don't start feeding our kids better food, I mean the outcome is just horrifying. And one of the ways we can start funding this I believe is thinking about it in a broader perspective.

We spend about $7 billion a year on the National School Lunch Program that feeds 27 million children for about 180 days a year. And I say we because our tax dollars do that.

Yet our tax dollars also pay for about $117 billion a year in diet-related illness in the medical system, and that's with about 12 percent of our kids having diabetes. What's going to happen when that quadruples?

So I think we need to start funneling more money into the system. And I think school districts and communities and the USDA have to start realizing that this is of utmost importance. And it can be done, we just have to get in there and do it.

FLATOW: Yeah, well, you're certainly on the forefront and the vanguard of that, Ann Cooper. And I want to thank you and wish you good luck in Berkeley.

Ms. COOPER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Ann Cooper is a chef. She's author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. And she's director of the nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley.

If you want to know more about her and her book, go over to our Web site. We have the link up there. And you can go right to her Web site and those recipes and all kinds of good stuff and find out how you can start getting active in your own school district to combat those lunches in those lunch rooms.

We're going to change gears. Stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break, and don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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