First in East Hampton, New York, then in Berkeley, California, and now in Boulder, Colorado, chef Ann Cooper—also known as the Renegade Lunch Lady—is transforming how U.S. children eat, one federally subsidized school lunch at a time. Under her leadership, out go fatty and heavily processed chicken nuggets, corn dogs, and pizza pockets; in come kid-approved, healthy menus with no trans fats and no high-fructose corn syrup, salad bars every day, whole grains, and organic milk.

“I think this is the social justice issue of our time,” says Cooper. “There is an achievement gap and a life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor. When you feed kids a diet high in sugar and corn syrup they just can’t think, and if you’re not well nourished you can’t excel. Plus, we have kindergarteners entering school with type 2 diabetes, 10-year-olds with kidney stones, 10- to 14-year-olds with clogged arteries. We have a moral imperative to turn this around.”

By the numbers

32: Percentage of U.S. children and teens who are overweight or obese (2007)

$123 billion: National estimated cost of obesity

30.5 million: Number of children served free or reduced-price lunches (2007; increasing due to current economic crisis)

$2.57: per student cost of a typical school lunch

$3.50: per student cost of a healthy school lunch

What you can do

Eat at school. First, take a look at the Local School Wellness Policy Act (schoolwellnesspolicies.org), which as of 2006 required all districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to develop a strategy to promote health and to counter childhood obesity. Then, says Cooper, “Go eat the food at the nearest school.” What do you think?

Be a catalyst. Cooper’s nonprofit foundation, F3: Food Family Farming, serves as a one-stop resource for schools, parents, farms, and producers. Design a blueprint for starting a healthy lunch program using The Lunch Box, an interactive tool. Foodfamilyfarming.org; click on “Tools & Links.”

Get active. “Turn off the TV, cook more, plant gardens, and talk about food with your kids; make wellness a core value,” says Cooper. Write your newspaper and elected representatives to support The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009. Both the House and Senate bills aim to amend the 1966 Child Nutrition Act by updating the national school nutrition standards and tightening standards on foods sold in schools.

Recommended viewing

Food, Inc. A movie that analyzes the U.S. food system and the need for radical change. foodincmovie.com.

Killer at Large. No-holds-barred look at the greatest “terrorist” threat facing America: obesity. killeratlarge.com

King Corn. A documentary about “two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation.” kingcorn.net

Two Angry Moms. What happens when two fed-up moms decide to change the school lunch program? angrymoms.org

What’s On Your Plate? A film about kids and food politics from award-winning producer and director Catherine Gund. whatsonyourplateproject.org

Learn more Follow Ann Cooper’s latest action at chefann.com, and subscribe to the School Lunch Talk blog, written by Cooper and Deborah Lehmann, at schoolfoodpolicy.com.