For Boulder parents who chafed at the highly processed and branded convenience foods that once were emblematic of school meals, and spent frustrating years trying to ignite a school food revolution, the changes Cooper has brought about seemingly overnight are a dream come true.

“I really feel like we couldn’t have done it without her,” said Robin Luff, a Boulder philanthropist and mother of two boys who, along with her husband, Kevin, a Hewlett-Packard executive, donated $100,000 to the program in the first year through their family foundation. They’ve pledged another $100,000 in matching funds this year. “Boulder is such a healthy community and here we were selling the kids such crap.”

Salad barThe bustling salad bar at Casey. Luff and other supporters see the Boulder makeover — dubbed the “School Food Project” — a
s a potential beacon for school districts across the country. Already they’ve helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase new kitchen equipment, fund marketing and kitchen training efforts, and pay for computer innovations and other infrastructure improvements provided by Cooper and her Lunch Lessons consulting group.

But a cloud hangs over their efforts. Not all Boulder kids or their parents are buying the new, healthier version of cafeteria fare. Recently it was revealed that the food services budget was significantly in the red because not enough students are purchasing the meals.

Cooper has reported a $360,000 deficit in her $6 million food budget for the most recent year.

Some say the new meals are too healthy: Kids miss their nuggets and Subway sandwiches. Others say the food still isn’t good enough: They don’t want their kids eating hot dogs, even if they are kosher all-beef hot dogs. And still others think it’s a mom’s sworn duty to pack her child’s lunch: They don’t want to pay for food from a steam table, no matter how healthy it might be.

“Boulder mothers take pride in how they feed their kids. They’re proud to make their kids’ lunch,” said Luff. “I don’t think we spent enough time the first year explaining to them what we were doing and what was expected of them.”

These days Cooper is engaged in a public relations blitz to promote the idea of serving freshly-made pizza, shepherd’s pie, and hamburgers on whole-wheat buns. She struggles to sell thousands of families on her belief that the federally subsidized school meals program can support made-from-scratch food that’s not only nutritious and sustainably sourced, but also attractive to kids trained to prefer convenience foods.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Cooper says. “We really need to raise participation, and we’re doing everything possible. I think we can get close to breaking even this year.”

Cooper’s business partner, Beth Collins, who was deeply involved in the Boulder food service re-design, and who continues to direct the district’s food procurement, is more blunt: “If we don’t get enough kids buying the meals, they’ll have to cut back services.”

School board President Ken Roberge, meanwhile, says he’s prepared to stay the course. “I think this is a work in progress,” Roberge said. “We knew all along that there were going to be costs starting up. Ann was very honest about that.”

Growing up healthy

As I observed lunch unfolding at the newly renovated Casey Middle School, where nearly 45 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, school principal Alison Boggs arrived to monitor the scene. When I asked her to reflect on the food the kids used to eat, she said, “It pained me. It was hard to watch.”

Obesity and weight-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and atherosclerosis strike hardest among low-income minority groups. At Casey, 42 percent of students are Latino, and last year the vast major of meals dished up in the Casey cafeteria — 75 percent — were served to low-income children.

Boggs pointed to one overweight teenager in the lunch line and said, “Every day you’d see her eating pizza, fries, chips and a strawberry milk.” She finds the redesigned food much healthier.

“Some of the kids are going through such growth spurts it’s really critical they get the right food,” she said. “At our school, the response has been tremendous.”

In the coming days, I’ll detail how Cooper has gone about transforming school food in Boulder, the people who have joined her cause, and innovations that other school districts might look to for inspiration in changing the food served every day to some 31 million of the nation’s children involved in the federally-funded school meals program.

A version of this post first appeared on Ed’s blog, The Slow Cook.