Berkeley’s School Lunch Makes its Big Screen Debut

by Sarah Henry on February 13, 2011 · 19 comments

in bay area bites,food films,school food

Lunch Love Community: A documentary project on Berkeley's school lunch program./Photo: Sophie Constantinou

Fancy a film documenting the evolution of school lunch reform in Berkeley and there’s not an interview with Alice Waters in sight.

We’ll get to that. First, some background: The Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) school food makeover and its much-lauded School Lunch Initiative has garnered lots of media coverage and is considered a stellar example for other public school district’s struggling to bring fresh, healthy food into their cafeterias and classrooms. Students at Berkeley public schools get to learn first hand about cooking and gardening too.

Given that, it’s surprising it’s taken so long for a documentary filmmaker or two to cover the school food revolution in this university town.

Now comes Lunch Love Community, a series of mini-movies or webisodes, inspired by a New Yorker story on the “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper. Cooper came in and overhauled Berkeley’s central kitchen and school lunch menu, with a little help from Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation.

What documentarians Helen De Michiel and Sophie Constantinou quickly discovered, though, after spending time in Berkeley’s public schools and steeping themselves in the history of the school food reform movement here, is that it takes a village -– not just a couple of school food rock stars -– to fix school food.

“Alice Waters is a visionary, Ann Cooper is the general who mobilized the troops, Bonnie Christensen, the BUSD’s executive chef, and Marni Posey, the district’s Director of Nutrition Services, are in the trenches every day,” explains De Michiel. “And they have taken this experiment to the next level, fined tuned it, and made it something sustainable that really works. That’s the story we were interested in telling — along with all the community members who came together before them to bring about change.”

If they cook it, they will eat it./Photo: Sophie Constantinou

Unhappy about the ubiquitous frozen tater tots, chicken nuggets, and canned fruit in heavy syrup trucked in from afar, a group of concerned parents worked for eight years on a Child Nutrition Advisory Committee to bring salad bars and fresh, local, made-from-scratch food into Berkeley schools. In 1999 the BUSD was the first district in the country to have a food policy — recommending soda machine bans and wholesome over heavily processed foods.

In light of recent developments on the school food front, the San Francisco-based filmmakers wanted to get their footage out as quickly as possible to a wide audience, particularly with the passage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. They also thought, frankly, that a digital distribution approach might help free up hard-to-come-by funding for a pending one-hour documentary project on the same subject. “We wanted to seize the moment, share what we found, and give people a way to respond to it and take away what was useful for them in their own communities,” says Constantinou. “It’s a key time in school lunch reform across the country.”

So they came up with the webisode concept, three-to-five minute pieces profiling aspects of Berkeley’s school food scene. The Parent Factor highlights the adults who banded together in the 1990s to change school food, including Eric Weaver, Beebo Turman, and Joy Moore.

Joy Moore provides an edible education to students at Berkeley Technology Academy./Photo: Sophie Constantinou

“Everything we put into our mouth’s isn’t food,” explains Moore, who has worked on this issue for several decades and currently teaches cooking and gardening at Berkeley Technology Academy. “I want kids to know that and make smart choices for themselves. So I’m trying to raise the consciousness of all our children about food and health. My mission is really simple: it’s to get kids to value good food.”

If They Cook It, They Will Eat It features Le Conte Elementary School cooking instructors Kathy Russell and Brenna Rich and their students illustrating what Waters has been quoted saying for years: Kids will consume vegetables — even dark, leafy green ones — if given the opportunity to grow, harvest, and cook themselves. And this: Food made with love tastes good. That’s something that many of the district’s devoted school and garden teachers have been sharing, organically, for years.

Rivka Mason and a student at Malcolm X Elementary./Photo: Courtesy Rivka Mason

The Whole World in a Small Seed focuses on Malcolm X Elementary’s beloved school-under-the-sky run by Rivka Mason. “I’m a garden teacher and a body worker and I know just how important it is for students to get out of their heads and away from their desks so they can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell to learn; an edible garden is a perfect environment to do all those things,” says Mason. “My mantra is: No child left inside. We’ve got so many kids sitting in front of screens for so long there’s an epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder. When kids get out and play in a school garden and pick produce and eat what they grow it’s a wonderful, healthy thing. Here in Berkeley we have an entire generation of food-savvy kids who have grown up this way.”

Berkeley’s school lunch program isn’t perfect, as comments on this recent Berkeleyside story suggest. But Lunch Love Community is a timely reminder of the trailblazing role this community has played in laying the groundwork for the national school lunch reform movement now being espoused by the likes of First Lady Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, and the incognito middle American school teacher who writes the blog (and soon-to-be book) Fed Up With Lunch.

Six shareable short films launched publicly right after Thanksgiving last year at, six more are due to come online.

The webisodes will also be featured at a public screening premiere on Sunday, February 13 at 2:30 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

The filmmakers will be on hand for a post screening discussion, along with school lunch reformers featured in the films, including Bonnie Christensen and Joy Moore.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
Berkeley’s New School Food Study: A Victory for Alice Waters
Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen
Jamie Olivier: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?
Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
Berkeley Bites: Tanya Henderson [BUSD cooking instructor]
Five Reasons for Optimism on the School Food Front
Seven Reasons Why the Time is Ripe for School Lunch Reform
10 Questions for Mrs. Q of Fed Up with Lunch
Fed Up with School Lunch: The Feds Join the Fray

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 14, 2011 at 8:34 am

My grandma, a cook-from-scratch, first-generation Italian American, was a “school lunch lady,” and I remember back when I was a kid that she worked so hard to make the food as good as she could … considering the ingredients on hand.

The only schools near me that have food/garden programs like this are small, expensive private schools. Obviously, that rules out so many people.

I won’t have time today to look at the webisodes, but I hope to soon.


Sarah Henry February 14, 2011 at 9:28 am

Can you remember what your grandma had to work with, Roxanne? I don’t doubt a cook-from-scratch, first-generation Italian American did her best to turn out tasty fare.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 15, 2011 at 7:54 am

I only remember the big news items, like the time she burned herself terribly when a pan of hot oil spilled and the time she accidentally sliced off part of her thumb with a meat slicer. There is a lingering joke in the family about poultry. She ALWAYS overcooked poultry … because she said she’d seen far too much undercooked bird served to “those poor dollies” (as she called the school kids). So, they must have been making whole birds, not things like chicken patties or nuggets back then.


Sarah Henry February 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Oh my goodness, Roxanne, I can see why the cafeteria war stories stayed with you.


MyKidsEatSquid February 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for the updates on this project. Great quote: “Food made with love tastes good.”


Sarah Henry February 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

One of my faves too, MKES.


Jennifer Margulis February 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm

So cool that there’s even some film documentary of this effort.


Sarah Henry February 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Agreed, Jennifer. And the distribution method means that anyone can learn from the BUSD’s experience.


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