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Food nouveau

At the Farm to Table Festival, haute cuisine means back to basics

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  • Story by Randy Mertens
  • Published: June 4, 2010
Farm to Table poster

The Farm to Table Festival, where the culinary world meets the farmers market, takes place June 12-13 at University Club of MU. Participants include celebrity chefs, expert nutritionists and agricultural visionaries.

Eating well is in again. In a backlash against Americans' excessive fast-food consumption, rising obesity rates and resulting health problems, many Missourians are returning to their culinary roots: fresh food grown by local farmers and prepared to maximize deliciousness.

To celebrate this movement, the University of Missouri is hosting a weekend-long food festival packed with gardening workshops, cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and, naturally, a farmers market.

Sponsored by the University Club of MU, University Catering & Event Services and the American Culinary Federation Central Missouri Chapter, the Farm to Table Festival takes place June 12-13 at the University Club. More than 15 chefs, nutrition experts and farmers will give presentations.

The Renegade Lunch Lady

Ann Cooper

Photo courtesy of Ann Cooper.

What’s wrong with school lunches today?  Just about everything, the Renegade Lunch Lady says.

Chef Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady, is the director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley (California) School District and founder of the Food Family Farming Foundation. Her life’s work is to transform how American children are fed in school, shifting from commodity-based and highly processed food to highly nutritious and wholesome meals that are also delicious.

Food choices in most school lunch programs aren't just cheap, she says; they’re dangerous. They're too high in saturated fat and cholesterol and too low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and legumes. As a result, they're contributing to skyrocketing obesity rates, health problems and learning problems among young people.

Cooper says children must have access to healthy food to grow their bodies, their minds and their future.

“Hungry or malnourished students cannot learn to the best of their abilities,” Cooper says. “The relationship children have with food must evolve into a virtuous circle benefiting not just themselves but our society as a whole. The education achievement gap, which is truly a social justice issue, will never be shrunk unless we clearly understand that healthy food is linked to academic performance.”

Studies have shown that a diet consisting of foods high in fats, sugars, food additives and artificial colors while low in vitamins, minerals and other protective factors can negatively affect learning, she says.

“Exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals through our food supply is being increasingly linked to such conditions as ADD, ADHD, antibiotic resistance and early onset of puberty, as well as diseases such as cancer and diabetes,” Cooper says.

A chef for more than 30 years, Cooper had an epiphany while researching her book Bitter Harvest, which explores hidden dangers in American foods. She shifted her career from cooking to advocacy work and now uses her skills to encourage a sustainable model for nutritionally sound school lunch programs nationwide.

During the Farm to Table Festival Cooper will describe how school districts across the country have modified their menus and improved the lives of kids.

Along with overhauling school lunch programs in her own Boulder Valley School District, Cooper helped change the Berkeley School District’s school menu, eliminating trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup and desserts while adding fresh fruits and whole-grain bread. She also instituted a policy of purchasing from regional and local companies.

Cooper has taken her message to CNN, MSNBC, the Sundance Channel, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ABC News Nightline, Martha Stewart Living, NPR and the Smithsonian Institution. She has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Time magazine. Cooper has written four books, including Lunch Lessons and Bitter Harvest. She was selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, was awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture and has served on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board.

Want to meet her in person? The Renegade Lunch Lady leads the seminar "Improving Our Children's Nutrition" at 3 p.m. June 13, followed by a 4:15 p.m. book signing, during the festival. Check the schedule for details.

The fruits of local labor

If you’ve ever stood in line at a Missouri farmers market, you know that the local food movement is thriving. 

A subset of this movement, purchasing Missouri fresh fruits, is thriving, too, despite a relatively short availability season. Patrick Byers, a regional horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension, says he is seeing more residents going out of their way to buy the state’s fruit harvest at roadside stands, farmers markets and pick-your-own farms.

Byers says consumers are making the extra effort for the same reasons that draw them to other aspects of the local-food movement: Eating locally produced food reduces vulnerability to oil shortages, transportation problems and large-scale food contamination, and it promotes sustainable agriculture.

“People want to get to know and support their neighbors,” he says. “We know that our dollars spent locally will benefit our community.” 

Freshly picked fruits offer significant amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, Byers says. They also taste better. “A farmer can pick and sell fruit at the peak of its flavor,” Byers says. “A product in the supermarket may be days to weeks away from its harvest.”

During the Farm to Table Festival Byers will discuss which berries are most suitable for commercial sale and how to begin home production in Missouri. He also will present information on economically promising berries, such as elderberry, aronia, hardy kiwi, gooseberry and stone fruits.

As a regional horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension, Byers covers a 16-county area centered on Springfield. He has served as a research associate in the peach and apple breeding programs at University of Arkansas and as a fruit adviser with the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station. He currently provides outreach education for fruit growers in southwest Missouri and has research interests in elderberry, papaw, persimmon, primocane raspberry, blackberry and other fruit crops.

Byers and his family also manage a small commercial orchard near Fordland, where they produce and market fruit and honey.

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentHealth & MedicineOn CampusArts & CultureFamily & CommunitySpecial Features & Series

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Last updated: June 6, 2013