Ed Bruske’s mission: To find out how one school community manages to cook food from scratch for its students.
Why didn’t I think of that? Of course lots of school-food fixers around the country want the inside scoop on how to get real meals into school cafeterias.
Bruske’s the man for the job. Earlier this year, he embarked on a similar reporting project. Bruske wanted to know just what gets dished up for lunch at his daughter’s public elementary school in D.C. He detailed his culinary misadventures with school cafeteria food in the nation’s capital in a seven-part series called Tales from a D.C. Kitchen. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the kids ate pre-cooked, processed foods, not unlike the fare the Berkeley school district rejected several years ago.
Many schools–as you probably know unless you’ve been hidden under a pile of commodity chicken nugget boxes lately–typically dish up frozen, industrially manufactured foods. “The joke in school food circles these days is that the most important tool in modern school kitchens has become the box cutter,” writes Bruske in his blog The Slow Cook. All the better to quickly slice through the boxes and plastic wrap to get to the ” food-like” products, such as the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and tater tots. Then they’re ready for the microwave and served up on plastic trays in time for lunch.
Bruske’s series will run for a week. His first post focuses on prepping chicken, which in Berkeley means frozen pieces marinated in teriyaki sauce, not those pulverized patties pushed in cafeterias across the country that Jamie Oliver deconstructed for kids on his recent Food Revolution reality TV show, set in Huntington, West Virginia–dubbed the unhealthiest town in the U.S. (The Huntington kids, um, ate them up unlike kids in England, who refused to touch the patties when The Naked Chef conducted the same experiment there.)
The takeaway from Bruske’s first installment? Making real food requires real labor. Labor takes time and time is money. And even in Berkeley’s much-touted “revolutionized” school food scene, which has benefited from the culinary chops of Alice Waters and Ann Cooper, the grand dames of the school food improvement movement, you will still see pizza on the menu at least once and sometimes twice a week — including at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, home to the Edible Schoolyard and the state-of-the-art Dining Commons. Nachos too. (In fairness, that’s pizza with a whole-wheat crust, scratch sauce, veggie toppings, and turkey sausage. And the nachos are made with whole foods as well.)
Still, as Bruske notes: “Alice Waters might cringe at the way her food rules have been bent to accommodate juvenile tastes.”
Stay tuned for further dispatches from the field over at The Slow Cook — including what happens when parents just say no to processed foods, and how to get kids on board with a new school lunch menu.
And chime in here if you have opinions about the food served to school children in Berkeley — or in your hometown.
[Photo: Berkeley Unified School District]
This post also appears on Civil Eats.