Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen

by Sarah Henry on May 10, 2010 · 33 comments

in civil eats,kids & food,school food

An ex-Washington Post reporter, who now blogs about school food, recently spent a week embedded in the central kitchen of the Berkeley Unified School District, in my hometown.

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.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Nani Steele May 10, 2010 at 9:05 pm

My understanding is that even with the tremendous work of the Edible folks and Anne Cooper, it is still far from what we would hope for our kids, and less than what we would provide for them at home in many cases (but certainly not all). I remember Anne giving a talk at UC, and saying how they still had to work with commodity foods, and that the first run of whole wheat pizzas the kids rejected.

My daughter has said the salad bar at Berkeley High is nothing to be excited about, and in the 3 years she’s gone there, had it only a few times and never eats in the cafeteria otherwise. Not to be a naysayer, because I know how hard it has been to come this far, and it’s wonderful what has been done (plus, I believe it is partially funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation)–I’m really curious to see what Ed finds out from all his sleuthing–the good and the bad. Perhaps he’ll go to Berkeley High too.

I often wonder, though-why the necessity to have hot school lunches in the first place? Perhaps the kids would be better off with lunch sent from home? When do you think school lunches first came into play? In the 80′s in France, I remember my cousins coming home for lunch, and afternoon snack was a baguette stuffed with a bar of chocolate. Yum.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 7:02 am

You raise a range of good points, Nani.

School meals began in the U.S. during the Progressive Era, roughly the period from 1890 until World War 1, according to Janet Poppendieck in her recent book “Free for All.” But these were mostly local efforts. The feds didn’t get into the school lunch biz until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Then, in 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act as a measure of national security (you need well-nourished citizens to fight wars), to safeguard the health & well-being of the country’s kids, and to encourage domestic consumption of nutritious ag commodities (subsidize farmers).

As for the Chez Panisse Foundation’s financial involvement in the BUSD school lunch program, they gave a grant to the district to fund Ann Cooper’s tenure (brought in in 2005 to turn the program around she stayed for four years). They also worked with the district on the Dining Commons, but it’s my understanding that the foundation doesn’t contribute economically to the district’s program in any on-going way, though I’ll double check.

Regarding hot lunches, I’m curious how that came about but my sense is, historically speaking, that the the thinking was some children’s only healthy meal may be at school (that may still be true for many to this day) and so a “real meal” was called for.

As for lunches from home, did you see Jamie Oliver checking lunch boxes on “Food Revolution”? One child’s lunch consisted of M&Ms and potato chips, I kid you not. My son reports that even at his school — in Berkeley no less — some children bring only “packaged crap,” as we call it,for school lunch, the stuff you see near the counter at corner stores. Yowzer.


Christine May 11, 2010 at 7:42 am

Wow, that statement about the box cutter is just so….illuminating. I think school lunch from scratch is entirely doable, and that’s b/c I’ve seen it done every day in Japan where my kids went to school when we lived there. This summer when we are back I’m going to do a little more questioning and investigating about the whole process. I keep thinking, if it can be done there in every school, why not here? What stands in the way?


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 8:10 am

Great attitude, Christine. Go for it and let us know what you find out.


MarthaAndMe May 11, 2010 at 7:51 am

I agree that healthy, scratch school lunches are possible and must be funded. They have to teach nutrition, but they don’t have to practice it? Seems pretty silly to me. It is challenging sometimes to find healthy food that kids will eat. My own kids don’t like the whole wheat pizza I make at home. There are ways to make healthy food kid friendly, as every mom knows.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 8:11 am

Good point, M&Me. Wanna give us an example of healthy food that’s kid friendly?

I make my own version of Jamie Oliver’s “Seven Veggie Pasta Sauce.” and that goes over pretty well with whole grain pasta and Parmesan cheese.


Alisa Bowman May 11, 2010 at 7:56 am

The more attention we give to companies, organizations and people who are doing things RIGHT, the more others will take notice and make changes. Glad this district is getting the recognition it deserves, and I hope it spreads to others.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

I like your spirit, Alisa. And, yes, perhaps the Berkeley school kitchen can serve as a model for other school districts. I know from news stories I’ve read recently that change is happening in other central school kitchens around the country.


Anna, The Lemon Lady May 11, 2010 at 9:36 am

A sad reality of what children bring to school lunch, is what the parents are feeding them on a daily basis. Visit any County Food Bank, Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Salvation Army Food Pantry, neighborhood church food pantry. You’ll get a real eye opener of all the packaged “crap” that gets distributed to poor families. It’s the big food corporations who make millions (billions?) of dollars of food donations to hunger relief organizations nationwide. Part philanthropy, part promotion.

That’s what many families are used to subsiding on, packaged, processed, etc.

Gardens may be the best teaching tool for children. I believe we must create more food-producing gardens, everywhere, in school, in neighborhoods, along the side of the road. Everywhere! Another positive thing, food stamps are accepted at Farmers’ Markets and most produce stores! Hooray for that.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 11:07 am

Hi Anna, Nice to have your perspective in the mix. I think many people would agree with your sentiments.


Kris Bordessa May 11, 2010 at 9:38 am

Real food DOES take more time, whether in an institutional setting or a home. (Funny story: I was having one of those days and in a moment of panic picked up a pizza at
Costco (know that we are not the pick up pizza at Costco kind of family). Serving it to my two teenage boys and husband they all turned up their lips and said it wasn’t as good as my homemade pizza. Those people can normally devour 2-3 full pizzas – they couldn’t finish the one from Costco. Score one for mom!)

I think it would be fabulous to get the students themselves helping in preparing/growing the food that is served at school. What an important lesson that would be!


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

You’re so right, Kris and I love your Costco pizza story.


Alexandra May 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

This is so cool! I’m so glad progress is being made in your community and hope the movement spreads to the rest of CA, since my granddaughter lives in LA, and then to the rest of the country. I wish a reporter would come to Cape Cod to do a story on how having all our towns and our legislators stand up against the spraying of herbicides probably will not stop the utility company from poisoning our groundwater, since they have a “legal” right to spray up to five herbicides, never tested together, under our power lines.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

Alexandra: Is there someone at your local paper that might tackle this topic? It seems like something a gung-ho community journalist would want to pursue.

And I think that in small pockets all over the country there are school districts doing their best to get better food into their cafeterias. I’ll keep you posted on others I learn about and welcome hearing from readers about what’s happening in their area.


Melanie Haiken May 11, 2010 at 11:59 am

I agree with Anna, I help with food distribution in our town and sometimes the food given out is really crappy, though I have to say lately, at least here, they are making more of an effort to offer better and more culturally appropriate food, like beans and tortillas and cheese, since we are largely a Hispanic community.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm

I think we can all safely agree that everyone deserves access to good quality and culturally appropriate food — at school and at home. So I agree with you to, Ms. M.


The Writer's [Inner] Journey May 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I think there really is something to be said about involving the students at the school in the process of devising meals from whole foods, something more co-operative so to speak. I know it would be a huge paradigm shift, but if/when even the smallest shift can come from the students with adults encouraging them and showing them along the way, positive things could happen. ~Meredith


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Hi Meredith,

I totally hear what you’re saying and I can also see the eye rolling from public school teachers, principals, and staff who feel overtaxed as it is just trying to cover the current academic curriculum on any given day (and I say this as a parent of an elementary school child who DOES get drama, dance, music, art, cooking and gardening.)


MyKidsEatSquid May 11, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I’ve been following your posts with great interest, and I’m with Meredith that when kids get involved in the process of making the food, they’re more apt to eat it. I know that my kids are constantly complaining that they don’t have time to eat their lunches at school. It’s too bad you can’t have nutrition as part of the school curriculum in elementary school, have the kids tend the garden or at least spend some time preparing the food in the cafeteria. I missed Jamie Oliver’s series–is that what he did?


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

My child complains he doesn’t have time to eat lunch at school as well, MKES, but that’s because he’s eager to get outside and play (or hang out, to use the new, pre-teen term he prefers). So he actually eats most of his lunch at 2:30, after one of his parents pick him up.

But, again, here in Berkeley we DO have cooking and gardening classes with curriculum attached.

What I thought was great on Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” was how he got the high school kids to act as “tasting ambassadors” handing out samples of new foods for kids to try. I think if lunch time was a more social, engaging activity, kids might want to stick around and eat.

I once inquired if the kids could eat at the outside tables — so much nicer than the loud, brightly-lid cafeteria — but no go. I think the eating environment is as important as the food. What do others think?


Christine May 11, 2010 at 3:46 pm

That reminds me of something I read about the shift to recess before lunch:
I wonder how widespread a phenomenon this is, and whether it might also help.
I agree that the eating environment is really important, too.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Yes, it makes sense, doesn’t it Christine? Play first and then feast? Especially for those kids — like mine — where school starts super early and lunch is served on the early side too.


Sheryl May 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Hopefully other schools will follow this example. It really can set up a child’s eating habits for life – especially teaching them how to make healthy choices and exposing them to healthy versions of the foods they are naturally drawn to.
Not all people can do it at home – so bravo to the schools that pick up the slack and really care about what the kids are eating. Better nutrition will lead to better learning overall, as well.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 5:46 pm

We call it “brain food” in our house — my son even asks for it at testing week. The kind of food that sustains you for the tasks ahead in the morning. He typically chooses porridge with milk and banana or granola with yogurt and berries.

Do your kids have favorite brain foods?


Ruth Pennebaker May 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm

What a great idea for an undercover piece. Berkeley’s example makes me hopeful.


Sarah Henry May 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Yes, Ruth, what’s happening in the BUSD central kitchen — and elsewhere in the country as well — gives me hope. As for an undercover piece, methinks the school administrators knew who Ed was and what he was doing, so not so much undercover but certainly investigative reporting, in the sense that he was nosing around looking to see what works and what doesn’t — and no better way than to get your hands busy in the kitchen, as he did.


Dr. Susan Rubin May 12, 2010 at 2:54 am

Kudos to Ed Bruske for getting the inside scoop.

Sarah, it’s important as you note, that Ann Cooper’s salary was paid by an outside foundation to do this work. Also, I recall that the BUSD superintendent Michelle Lawrence was completely on board with the project. She actually took the time to visit with me when I went out to visit many years ago (well before the Angry Moms movie).

The superintendent in my own town feels that “nutrition” is not a top priority, our district has been beholden to Aramark for 17+ years. Sadly, there is no possibility of scratch cooking or health supportive ingredients coming to my district anytime soon.

Thanks to the challenges here in my home turf, I’ve learned loads about school food, food systems & politics. There are many ways to build the culture of food besides the cafeteria. Gardens and food-based education remain my strongest hope for my own district. Along with reaching teachers and administrators on the importance of real food, one at a time.


Sarah Henry May 12, 2010 at 7:55 am

And kudos to you, Dr. Rubin, for fighting the good fight for many years (if you haven’t seen the documentary “Two Angry Moms,” check it out as it will give you insight into what Susan’s been up against in her school district.)

I think nutrition-based education and getting school staff on board is key, as you note, and I’m sure many other parents would agree.


Chris May 13, 2010 at 8:31 am

It seems to me that the discussion of school lunches– particularly here in Berkeley– misses an important point.

Food is more than the delivery of nutrition, obviously. As adults (especially those with an interest in food) we are highly sensitive to presentation, atmosphere, and other external but vital factors. Why would our children be any different?

Let’s not stop with the food; the school cafeteria itself needs serious rethinking. At Malcolm X, (which my son attended; my daughter is still there), the cafeteria is a grim, semi-basement room built for a smaller capacity school than now exists at the site, so the children eat in shifts. They are rushed, jammed into rows of tables in a stifling setting, regimented by classroom, frequently exhorted by an administrator to hurry up, stop talking, and eat. The lunch “hour” is in fact a 40-minute period combined with the only other recess of the day, practically ensuring most kids will bolt their food to get in some precious play time. I defy any parent to endure a meal under those conditions, let alone enjoy it.

Frequently my daughter will bring home her packed lunch only partially eaten, explaining that the smell in the lunchroom, the crowding, and the execrable table manners of her classmates were too oppressive to stimulate her appetite, and I believe her. “Why can’t I eat outside?” she asks. Why indeed? Well, probably for lack of lunchtime supervisors and the additional clean-up demands, but wouldn’t it be nice if it– or some alternative–were possible?

One way to change the way children eat– and make it stick for a lifetime– is to consider and address all aspects of food, including its enjoyment and the sense of community it can bring. If we’re not doing everything possible to improve the unpleasant settings and circumstances in which we expect them to eat it, though, all our efforts stop at the kitchen door.


Sarah Henry May 13, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Hi Chris, Nice to see a fellow Malcolm X parent commenting on my blog.

As you’ll see from a response I made above, I couldn’t agree with your more about how important the eating environment is in terms of children getting a decent lunch at school (though I must confess I did need to look up the word ‘execrable,’ — which means wretched or detestable in case any other readers are likewise in the dark.)

Eating outside, in less crowded circumstances, without time pressure, and with better light, ventilation, and acoustics — I’m with you. All these things matter, especially if you have a sensory sensitive kid.

Alice Waters talks about the “pleasures of the table,” and that concept is really important to me and a valuable one to pass on to our children. I have seen kids at other schools sitting out under trees at bench tables, chatting and happily eating away and I’ve often wished I could replicate that experience for my own child.


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