One goal, two voices

Two women with the same goal come together to share their points of view.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

School foodservice operators might consider Ann Cooper and Janey Thornton to be polar opposites. They’d call Thornton, deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a former school foodservice director, the traditionalist, working the system and trying to effect change from within. By contrast, Cooper—nutrition services director for the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District—is the rebel, coming in from the outside and trying to buck the system.

But they do share two traits. They have passion for school foodservice and they are impatient. Both traits were exhibited earlier this month when the two women shared a panel at the Child Nutrition & Industry Conference, staged by the School Nutrition Association in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

After presentations by Jean Ronnei, foodservice director for St. Paul, Minn., Schools, and Jody Houston, foodservice director for the Corpus Christi (Texas) Independent School District, Cooper took the stage. The former restaurant chef and now self-styled “renegade lunch lady” began by calling school foodservice “the social justice issue of our time.” She railed against phased in approaches—“reduce sodium over three years? Do it tomorrow!”—lamented failure—“every day, it’s not good enough”—and questioned operators’ commitment to quality foodservice—“Why is it so hard what we do?”

She talked about offering resources to school foodservice operators through her Web site, lunchbox.com. “I want to create an online community for every person in America who cares about school food, built on the model of Facebook,” she explained.

Thornton, the former SNA president who joined USDA last year, followed. She wasted little time expressing her own frustration at government bureaucracy, saying that federal officials “are well-intentioned but don’t really understand how things work at the local level. And she acknowledged her own impatience: “I want everything to happen tomorrow—yesterday, actually.”

Thornton called on foodservice directors to petition their states’ legislators to mandate closed campuses. “Closed campuses would help,” she suggested. “During the school day students need to be in school learning, and learning what to eat.”

She blamed “society as a whole” for the obesity epidemic and called on SNA members to become community leaders in the fight for healthier eating habits. But she admitted that it’s going to be an uphill battle.

“There is a greater need for our programs than ever before,” she said, “but also more demands on our programs and fewer resources.”

However, she also noted that there is no substitute for food that appeals to customers. “We can legislate until we’re blue in the face what goes on a child’s plate, but we cannot legislate what goes in a child’s mouth.”

For both women, the need to improve school foodservice is paramount. For Ann Cooper to mount the kind of support she suggests is necessary to do so, she is going to have to integrate herself into the very system she is fighting against. She took one step in that direction by becoming a member of SNA. The next step is to become part of the team, rather than continuing to be the rebel. One of her closing comments was, “I want to help you celebrate the wonderful things you’re doing.” She’ll need to alter that sentiment to “I want us to celebrate the wonderful things we’re doing.”

For Janey Thornton to be successful, she’s going to have to make her fellow bureaucrats see school foodservice from the local level. And that’s going to take more grass-roots effort from her former colleagues.

Two women with one goal, approaching from two sharply different angles. Military commanders will tell you that an attack from two fronts can be very successful—if you have the troops and right strategy.