Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen: Part Two

by Sarah Henry on May 14, 2010 · 21 comments

in food organizations,food politics,school food

It seems like there’s lots of interest in school food among Lettuce Eat Kale readers.

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.]

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl May 14, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Thank goodness there are people who are committed to working hard for the good of school children. This would be wonderful if it caught on nationwide.


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 6:47 am



MyKidsEatSquid May 14, 2010 at 10:38 pm

How true that school cafeterias need real chefs manning them. At my daughter’s middle school they have a sort of ‘foodie table.’ The kids each bring something interesting to share with each other–if you buy you’re practically shunned. This week they tried out fruit smoothies, Korean sushi, ribs. My daughter has become much more interested in packing her own, creative lunch as a result. My favorite dish she brought in this week–peanut butter and banana sandwich on cinnamon-apple whole wheat bread. Kids will eat better, healthier food if they’re given a little push in the right direction. Great post!


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 6:49 am

What a great idea, MKES. Sounds like your daughter attends a middle school that’s thinking creatively about how to keep students interested in eating in the cafeteria.


Alisa Bowman May 15, 2010 at 3:57 am

I can only hope that this concept spreads to places beyond the liberal belt. I hate to say it, but I kind of expect fresh food to be served in Boulder and Berkeley schools. Once it starts happening in Pennsyltucky, we will have turned a big corner.


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 6:50 am

Good point, Alisa. When such a community embraces this kind of school cafeteria change that will be a huge turning point.


Alexandra May 15, 2010 at 6:00 am

Exciting that Cooper feels this model can work anywhere in America. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this optimism pans out.


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 6:52 am

Yes, it’s just that we need people like Ann Cooper and Bonnie Christensen cloned around the country. That said, there are people — parents, educators, chefs — all across America doing their best to bring about change in school food in their community.


Dana Woldow May 15, 2010 at 9:54 am

As longtime chair of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Student Nutrition committee, I can offer some insight into why SF has not yet been able to achieve the kind of program Berkeley has.

We have made huge strides in the past 8 years, getting junk food out and salad bars, fresh fruit, and whole grains in, but we are not able to scratch cook our entrees.

Here’s some of the challenges we still face:

Berkeley USD has a gorgeous new central kitchen built with funds from a bond approved by Berkeley voters a decade ago. This is a community which has shown that it is willing to tax itself to provide the means for students to receive scratch cooked meals at school, so kudos to them!

A central kitchen would be essential to doing scratch cooking in SF; we don’t have one, and the kitchens in our schools are way too far gone to be renovated for doing scratch cooking, in addition to the prohibitive cost of labor to scratch cook at our over 100 schools.

Berkeley pays about 20-25% less per hour for their labor than SF; thus, while BUSD may spend 60% of their budget for labor and overhead, just as SFUSD does, they get far more hours of labor for their money than SF.

This is another essential component of scratch cooking, as is made clear in this series of articles.

Labor contracts for SFUSD’s caf workers are up for renewal this year, and it is possible that costs in this area could increase yet again.

Berkeley charges more for their paid meals than SF; in 08-09, Berkeley charged
$3 for elementary lunch (SF charged $2), $3.50 for middle school (SF charged
$2.50) and $4 for high school (SF charged $3). Last I heard, the Berkeley school
board approved increasing those rates to $3.25, $3.75, and $4.25 respectively
for the current school year, but as BUSD does not have lunch price info posted
on their website anywhere that I can find, I have not confirmed this.

As mentioned in this series, Berkeley receives the Meals for Needy Pupils revenue
stream from the state, which SF does not receive (this is based on a property
tax override some communities had in place in the 1970s). This year, that
revenue stream will provide an additional $1.24 for every free and reduced price
meal (breakfast AND lunch) served in BUSD, on top of the reimbursement provided
to every school by the federal govt. ($2.68 per free lunch, $2.28 per reduced
price lunch, and $1.16-$1.74, depending on poverty level of the district and
student, for free/reduced breakfast.)

As you can see, this means that Berkeley will receive far more total reimbursement that SF receives for every free breakfast served to a qualified student, which helps explain why they are able to offer free breakfast to all students.

(Note: the “double” reimbursement is only for breakfasts served to students who qualify for free/reduced meals, but the majority of those who choose school meals in BUSD do qualify, so the extra money helps cover the cost of giving away a free breakfast to students who do not qualify for govt. reimbursement.)

These are just some of the major differences between BUSD and SFUSD, and help explain why some things being done in Berkeley could not be done here in the absence of enormous outside funding.

Major change in Berkeley would not have been possible without the support of the citizenry of Berkeley.

To the extent that these folks have been willing to tax themselves, to put their money where their kids’ mouths are, they have it all over SF.


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Dana, Thanks so much for laying out the nuts and bolts differences between the two Bay Area school districts and for spelling out the kind of very real obstacles you face.

I think it really helps folks understand what other school communities are up against — and, equally importantly, just what kind of change is necessary to turn things around.


Jennifer Margulis May 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I’m so glad to see these changes happening. It’s very exciting. It makes such a difference for children and their health when they are eating fresh organic food!


Sarah Henry May 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm

I don’t think anyone would argue with you on that score, Jennifer.


Melanie Haiken May 15, 2010 at 11:28 pm

I’ve been wondering what it takes to put a program like this into place, so all this great reporting is really helpful, Sarah. And I also appreciate Dana’s laying out the challenges facing SF; it puts it in perspective. I realize I need to know more about the facilities available at our schools here; I don’t know what resources we have available for cooking fresh food. Very interesting to contemplate!


Sarah Henry May 16, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I agree, Melanie, great to have the SF comparison to get a good sense of some of the very real obstacles out there for other school communities. As for your area, San Rafael, check out what my friend Michelle Stern is doing in your community on her blog, What’s Cooking:


Meredith May 16, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Just that changes are happening is a positive sign. I’m a firm believer that good does spread. I’m hopeful we’ll begin to see more of this type of program across the country, perhaps here and there at first, but who knows when that good ole “tipping point” can take effect.


Sarah Henry May 16, 2010 at 9:14 pm

My thinking as well, Meredith. Tipping point here we come.


landguppy May 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

If only everyone was as lucky as Berkeley. We can’t even get our district to pay for wheat bread for its sandwiches.


Sarah Henry May 16, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Thanks for the reality check, landguppy. And a question: Is wheat bread more expensive than white in your area?


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