The Chef Ann Foundation – based in Boulder – seeks to change school lunch programs by enabling school communities to create healthier food for students. They do so by offering programming, training, funding and other resources as well as hosting Real School Food Challenges across the country. A chef, author, public speaker and educator, Ann Cooper founded the foundation in 2009. Since the founding, Chef Ann remains a large contributor to the organization’s growth. Known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Chef Ann’s enthusiasm and passion energizes the foundation’s events and inspires attendees to commit to changing school lunch standards.

On October 25, a handful of Colorado’s favorite chefs and leaders of the local natural products industry gathered with Denver and Boulder’s biggest food enthusiasts and activists to learn more about school lunch programs. While the chefs finished up their dishes, the foundation’s CEO, Mara Fleishman, thanked the competitors for volunteering their time to raise awareness about the nation’s school food programs. Fleishman continued on to explain her passion for and dedication to the foundation. “When I saw [Chef] Ann and I saw how she wanted to change school food across the country, I knew [she] might be the only human that could do it.” 

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The Real School Foundation is one of the foundation’s tactics to raise both funds and awareness for the nation-wide school food issue. Across the country, schools have $1.25 to create a meal that follows the USDA guidelines. All components of the meal must be included in this low budget — protein, grain, fruit, vegetable and milk. During the challenge, competitors must follow these guidelines to prepare a cost-efficient, delicious and healthy meal for $1.25. The lively event opened the eyes of the attendees as they recognized the nation-wide issue of public school food.

Danna Fleishman has volunteered at the Chef Ann Foundation since its start 10 years ago. She was excited to be in attendance during the event and commented on the inspiring difference the foundation makes in kids’ lives. “Bringing a rainbow to a kid’s plate is amazing. Seeing a kid choose veggies over a twinkie is amazing,” she commented. 

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Chef Ann spoke to her inspiration for starting the foundation. “It should be a birthright that every child every day has healthy food at school, and no child is ever hungry,” she said. Her passion for giving school students access to healthy food could be seen easily as she spoke with attendees throughout the night. “Eat, drink, be merry, judge and change the world,” Cooper encouraged, as she invited attendees to hop in line to taste test recipes.

As chefs put the finishing touches on their cost-efficient, healthy meal, those in attendance prepared to take part in judging each meal on presentation, taste and scalability – or how easily the meal could feed a school full of students. Participants included Ben Fenton, vice president of Boulder Food Group; Catherine Compitello, consultant at the Beacon Fund; husband and wife co-founders of Birch Benders, Matt LaCasse and Lizzi Ackerman; Beata Pabian, vice president of sales at The Jackfruit Company; Alan Murray, CEO of GoodBelly by NextFoods; Miche Bacher, founder of  Miche’s Kitchen and Zhuzh! and Chef Daniel Asher, chef of River & Woods and soon-to-open Ash’Kara. At the end of the night, the overall winning dish would be put on the Boulder Public School’s lunch menu.

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Chef Daniel Asher is a regular supporter and participant in Colorado’s local food events, including Slow Foods Nation and Harvest Week. When speaking to Asher about his involvement in these events, his passion for feeding people delicious food is blatantly obvious.

“First and foremost, like any equation, you gotta lead with flavor, it’s gotta be memorable and delicious, and create a moment of ‘Oh my gosh, this is delicious, I want this again soon.’ And if kids connect with that during their day, and they feel properly fueled and nourished, they’re gonna work better, they’re gonna think better, they’re gonna play better.”

A long supporter of the Chef Ann Foundation, Asher commented that providing the country’s kids with nutritious and healthy food should be done with as much reverence and respect as feeding a patron at one of his restaurants. The idea of hospitality should be translated to the schools’ lunchrooms. “It doesn’t matter if that setting is a third-grade lunch table at noon or some Michelin star restaurant at 8 p.m. on a Friday night in Paris. It’s the same concept of taking care of others,” he explained. “[The Chef Ann Foundation is] creating desperately needed, long overdue change.”

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Robbie Vitrano, CEO of Good Spread, and Chef Kelly Whitaker, CEO of ID Est Hospitality earned an honorable mention for presentation with their dish — apple chicken meatball pop with cheesy rice grits and corn fritters. While the dish was aesthetically pleasing, it also touched on an important part of large-scale food preparation — food waste.  Vitrano commented, “we wanted to make a little bit of a statement about nutrition, about the local food system, and about the ability to use the food waste and incorporate that too.” 

Vitrano and Whitaker boiled the milled grains with the bare corn cobs, eliminating the need for rice and simultaneously giving the grits a fuller flavor. To utilize the whole vegetable, the chefs made fritters with the corn kernels which added a crunchy texture to the dish. The chefs sweetened the chicken meatball with diced apple and a teriyaki sauce that utilized the juice from the leftover apple cores.

Vitrano was eager to tell people about the components of their dish. “We used all our food waste in it and really squeezed out the ingredients for that $1.25.” Chef Asher was impressed with this dish, and was quick to comment, “those touches of thoughtfulness as far as food waste goes, and using the scraps of one dish to be the foundation of another dish, is amazing.”

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The winners of Boulder’s Real School Food Challenge created a delicious and colorful vegetarian meal. Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butter and Chef Hosea Rosenberg, owner of Blackbelly and Santo, developed a sweet potato and black bean enchilada recipe for the competition. Gold said, “feeding our children is one of the most important responsibilities we have at our schools.” This foundation’s mission hits close to home for Rosenberg and has given him an opportunity to make a difference in local kids’ lives. “I was a school lunch kid, and I know what it means to get that lunch and where I grew up in northern New Mexico, it was pretty poor and we didn’t always get very good food.”

Rosenberg’s dedication to the foundation also stems from being a new father. Throughout the night, the chef could be seen chatting with participants and attendees while holding his daughter. He explained, I have a little kid now, and I want to make sure that the children of our community are getting something worthwhile and that helps them develop. Because without good nutrition, you aren’t going to develop your brain and you’re not going to develop your body and you’re going to be already behind in life.”

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The Chef Ann Foundation is launching a new membership campaign to start in December. You can become a member of the Chef Ann Foundation by donating $25 a month. Each member will get a curated culinary gift box from Chef Ann. For more information on donating and membership, click here.

To learn more about the Chef Ann Foundation, visit this website.

All photography by Samantha Hines.

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