So I’m following up on my first post about the recent series written by Ed Bruske of The Slow Cook, who spent a week in the Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) central kitchen, considered a model for school districts across the country.
What’s going on in Berkeley isn’t news to those of us, myself included, who live in the town and whose child attends a BUSD school.
But, of course, lots of school-food fixers around the country want the inside scoop on how to get real meals into school cafeteria. “I’m so glad Ed did this,” says Ann Cooper, “the renegade lunch lady,” brought in to overhaul Berkeley’s school food five years ago. “It’s great when an outsider comes in and reports back, as opposed to singing your own praises.”
You can read the whole series on the environmental site Grist and on Bruske’s own blog. Kudos to the ex-Washington Post reporter for his coverage.
For a synopsis, read on:
In his second BUSD blog Bruske, who teaches food appreciation in an after-school program at a private elementary school in D.C., recounts how the advocacy of Berkeley parents was key to the food revolution that has taken place in a town well-known for political activism.
Up until five years ago, Berkeley public schools served corn dogs, canned commodity vegetables, and fruits laden with high fructose corn syrup.
This kind of food in a place dubbed the Gourmet Ghetto, home to Alice Waters and her “delicious revolution,” with its focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Waters toured the school cafeterias and reported that they looked like prisons, notes Bruske.
Until the parents protested. It took, of course, much lobbying of school administrators and local politicians, teaming up with advocacy groups like the Center for Ecoliteracy, and educating voters to bring about change and find the money to make it happen.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation granted around “$100,000ish” to bring Cooper in as a consultant to get the job done. As former BUSD superintendent Michelle Lawrence says in this installment, you have to invest in food in the same way you invest in books.
Cooper worked hard to get rid of processed foods and flavored milk, and introduced salad bars, whole grains, and raw vegetables, which find their way into meals cooked from scratch.
During Cooper’s tenure — she left a year ago to tackle a similar problem at a school district three times the size of Berkeley in Boulder, Colorado — the Dining Commons was built at Martin Luther King, Jr, Middle School.
It now serves as the central kitchen for the entire district of 16 schools. The Dining Commons looks lovely, and happens to be housed at the same school as the Edible Schoolyard, the kitchen-garden program also started by Waters. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen there for the past five years.)
There’s some grumbling about why King got the gorgeous new cafeteria, but the size of the campus make it an obvious choice. It’s a gleaming building with an open kitchen, good light, and really bad acoustics. Click here to see a video.
In part three, Bruske reveals why it’s so important to have real chefs in school kitchens — and just how rare that is.
For BUSD executive chef Bonnie Christensen, who has done stints in some of the best New York City restaurants, and sous chef Joan Gallagher, plating aesthetically-pleasing food for students is an essential part of their culinary craft, writes Bruske.
They must also comply with food rules and regulations, work within a tight budget, and meet all the federal nutritional requirements — including all that nonsense about two starches that drove Jamie Oliver crazy in his recent TV series.
In the fourth installment, we learn how Cooper combed the school district budget and was savvy enough to find funds slated for “Meals for Needy,” which should have been going to school food but weren’t.
That turned out to be manna from heaven for the Berkeley cooking crew — an extra $879,000 in cash this year, which represents around 24 percent of the entire school food budget, Bruske notes.
Cooper also started providing free school breakfast for all of the 9,100 Berkeley students. Serving breakfast, Cooper learned, is essentially a cash cow for the school food program; extra revenue from breakfast helps pay for better food at lunch.
School breakfast naysayers include some teachers, who aren’t too keen about the time it takes away from teaching and the increased mess in the classroom, which can attract unwanted creatures.
Some parents grumble that their child now eats two breakfasts. But, as Bruske points out, breakfast in Berkeley is typically a small, fruit muffin or packet of whole grain cereal with a low sugar content, plain, organic milk, and fresh fruit.
In his final post on the subject (there’s also an epilogue), Bruske works the lunch line and reveals just how hard it is to get middle schoolers to eat their greens and beans. Progress, it seems, happens in small steps, even in a produce paradise like Berkeley.
The BUSD kitchen staff work hard to incorporate produce in ways that are attractive to students — they roast veggies rather than steam (which enhances flavor and appearance), vegetables also show up in pasta sauces, meat loaf, shepherd’s pie, and soup.
So, just how well is the BUSD program doing?
The numbers of kids signed up for school lunch hasn’t grown much since the changes were put in place, and participation is essential for keeping costs on track. About a quarter of Berkeley school kids eat the federally-subsidized school meal; nearly 70 percent of the lunches served go to students who are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals based on family income.
Most high school students still leave school to forage for food, typically at fast food joints close to campus.
But the program isn’t losing money. “It essentially breaks even and we no longer take money from the general fund,” says Bonnie Christensen. “There isn’t any profit, per se, any money left over after paying for food, labor, and supplies is reinvested in the program. But we are paying our bills and staying in the black. We keep a watchful eye over our expenses on a daily basis. We work within a very tight budget. There is no wiggle room.”
Christensen adds that training and educating kitchen staff on how to cook from scratch is a constant, time-consuming job. Some really care and feel empowered because they’re learning new skills, she notes.
But it can be difficult to get everyone on board and she is largely working with relatively unskilled workers. “Until we as a society value the food service employees and pay them a living wage, then doing this job will continue to be a challenge,” says Christensen.
Still, she’s committed to the task. “I do this job with pride — I come in at 4:45 a.m. and leave around 2 p.m. and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. But I do this because I’m a mother as well as a chef, and what could be more important than feeding all our children well?” asks Christensen, whose two children will attend BUSD schools next year.
Of course, Berkeley is a small school system, not beholden to huge food service corporations such as Chartwells, Sodexo, and Aramarck, which have contracts with more than 500 school districts around the country, writes Bruske in his final post from the field.
Is it possible, then, for a large school district, say in Chicago, New York City, or Washington, D.C., to achieve what Berkeley has achieved?
Absolutely, says Cooper. “But it takes systemic change, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires a lot of money — that’s the reality.”
“And you need to get as many students participating in the program — so your labor costs are a lower percentage of your overall costs — and you need your staff to buy into the program and receive training on cooking with raw ingredients,” she adds.
Still, Cooper firmly believes it’s doable anywhere in America. “We did it in Berkeley, I’m doing it Boulder. It is absolutely possible.”
Could you see this kind of program working in your child’s school? What obstacles do you think you’d face? Do you have questions or comments about Berkeley’s school food program?
Feel free to chime in below.
[Photo: Berkeley Unified School District 2007 Nutrition Staff, courtesy BUSD; Photo: Alice Waters and students, courtesy Edible Schoolyard; Photo; Chef Ann Cooper, courtesy Ann Cooper.]