Berkeley’s School Lunch Program Flawed, Say Insiders

by Sarah Henry on February 14, 2011 · 16 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,food events,food films,school food,sfgate site

From the short film If They Cook It, They Will Eat It./Photo: Sophie Constantinou

The successes — and shortcomings — of the Berkeley Unified School District’s revamped school food program received equal billing at yesterday’s premiere screening of short films collectively known as the Lunch Love Community Documentary Project.

On the big screen the audience at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley were greeted with cinematic images of children contentedly nibbling on fruit, tucking into salad, and choosing produce at a school’s farmers’ market.  But after the viewing, some adults provided a counterpoint to the rosy pictures showcasing Berkeley’s much-lauded School Lunch Initiative.

John Muir 5th grade teacher Stephen Rutherford was hands down the most critical. He talked about long, slow lines for lunch at his elementary school, the challenges for little fingers using swipe cards, the untended salad bar, the rush to eat, the vast amounts of waste, and a tense cafeteria environment.

Some of his concerns echo those raised by parents commenting on a recent Berkeleyside story on Lunch Love Community. “The day-to-day reality of feeding kids doesn’t resemble what you see on this screen,” said Rutherford. “We all had a vision of what school lunch could be and at my school it’s still very sad.”

Joy Moore, a cooking and gardening instructor at Berkeley Technology Academy, a small, alternative to Berkeley High School, said her students often get overlooked on the lunch front.

And a long-simmering resentment — that King Middle School, which houses Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, the new Dining Commons, and the district’s central kitchen, unfairly receives more resources than other schools — boiled to the surface.

This discontent with the reality of Berkeley’s program reveals just how many obstacles school districts face in trying to improve school nutrition for all its students.

Still, amid the sniping and genuine frustration there was, well, a lot of love for a program that has garnered global high fives for its efforts to improve school food.

It takes a village: Lunch Love Community filmmakers Sophie Constantinou (far left) and Helen De Michiel (far right) flank some of players in Berkeley's school food reform./Photo: Courtesy Berkeley Unified School District

BUSD’s executive chef Bonnie Christensen good-naturedly responded to criticisms. She strives, she said, to make school food even and equitable across the district. A career culinary professional who comes from a fine-dining background, Christensen unapologetically admitted that she and her staff face enormous obstacles, including a shoestring budget, to turn out wholesome, tasty food every day. But, she argued, most of the time they do just that.

B-Tech has gotten short shrift, she conceded, and she and her staff are working on ways to improve food service there. One real challenge: Equipment brought into the school to enhance meal service has been stolen in the past.

Christensen also acknowledged difficulties in John Muir’s cafeteria, noting that she spent an entire week at the school earlier this year trying to iron out problems. At King, the staff are able to serve lunch in just seven minutes, she said, and added that for a school lunch program to succeed at a site it requires the commitment and cooperation of staff from the top down.

Here’s what everyone seemed to agree on: The program is a vast improvement, if an imperfect one, on what former BUSD nutrition services director Ann Cooper inherited. At the time the lunch menu consisted of chicken nuggets, corn dogs, pizza pockets, and other highly processed fare.

Christensen, herself a BUSD parent, described a program which began with pioneering parents seeking a healthier eating environment for their children as a work in progress.

Moore drew knowing laughs from the crowd when she acknowledged that the success of the program came down to relationship building that grew out of years of interminable meetings. (Moore’s advice to others trying to bring about change in school food: serve something to eat at such events and you’ll have taken a first step towards building alliances and creating community.)

Four of the mini films in a series by local filmmakers Sophie Constantinou and Helen De Michiel were shown, including a new segment Feeding the Body Politic, in which former Berkeley School Superintendent Michelle Lawrence, who had dismissed a school food policy as unimplementable nonsense, describes her aha moment.

Early in her tenure, a student from Longfellow Middle School died during the summer break from complications related to adult-onset (formerly known as Type II) diabetes, a disease that can often be prevented or controlled through diet and physical activity.

That’s the kind of wake-up call playing itself out in American communities across the country which has helped sparked the current school food revolution. And it’s what motivates someone like Bonnie Christensen, whose work day starts at 4:30 a.m, to get out of bed every morning.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside, was republished on Civil Eats and cross posted on SFGate.

You might also like:

Berkeley’s School Lunch Makes its Big Screen Debut
Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen
Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen: Part Two
Joy Moore: Community Food Reformer
Berkeley Bites: Tanya Henderson [BUSD cooking instructor]

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan February 17, 2011 at 9:15 am

Perhaps this is a case of Too Many Cooks Syndrome? It sounds like people agree on what they want (healthier food and an enjoyable lunchtime experience for their kids), but they don’t all agree on how to achieve that goal.


Sarah Henry February 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I think there is some of that, Susan. And also once the food leaves the central kitchen it’s up to each individual school site to set the tone and standards in their cafeteria, which may explain why the lunch experience seems to vary widely, depending on the school and who you talk to.


NoPotCooking February 17, 2011 at 11:41 am

School lunches are so hard. I’m really glad to see that they are getting so much attention lately. Hopefully ALL of them will improve in the years to come.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Lazy Man’s Quiche


Sarah Henry February 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I think most folks would agree with you, NPC.


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi February 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

This merely shows there are no easy answers. At least there are people out there looking for better ones than “ketchup is a vegetable”.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Now THAT’S Good Reading! Bloggies 2011 Finalists


Sarah Henry February 17, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Well said — and good memory — Melanie.


Ruth Pennebaker February 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm

It-s always fascinating — and disheartening — to see how complicated problems like this are. Wouldn’t it be great if life were … *easier*?
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Speaking of Empathy


Sarah Henry February 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Indeed, Ruth. But it’s also encouraging that the people who have worked long and hard on this program are open to finding ways to make it better and address constructive criticisms.


MyKidsEatSquid February 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I’m with Ruth. I applaud their efforts, but I’m sure it’s hard to maintain this kind of program and then duplicate it. But I do think every little bit helps. My youngest daughter’s teacher encourages her students to bring in fresh fruits and veggies for snack time. Because of that gentle prodding my daughter has become a blueberry enthusiast and banana fanatic.


Sarah Henry February 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Love these kind of anecdotal stories, MKES. What I think may be going on here is a good food program with challenges on the execution/distribution front. I’ll be curious to see how these are addressed.


Jennifer Margulis February 19, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I’m sorry to hear about all the waste. At our school the kids haven’t had ENOUGH to eat (not sure why…). I WISH we could have a farms to school program where we are. But I guess it takes awhile to get things right…


Sarah Henry February 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Yes, Jennifer, I think you’re right: It takes time to figure out kinks in any new system. What’s working in your kids’ school food program or is it a total bust?


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. February 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm

The criticisms sound valid and constructive, and such an ambitious program no doubt has many kinks to work out. Still, I’m glad that Christensen, Moore, et al. keep moving forward despite the difficulties – how can it NOT be a vast improvement over the former school lunch program?
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Rice and Beans So there


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