At 5 a.m., when the sun is just be-ginning to rise over Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, the district’s cooks are already preparing thousands of meals. They have to start work hours before the students even hit the snooze button because these days—unlike the last several decades in the history of school lunches—the cooks do a whole lot more than defrost tater tots and thaw cheese pizza.
One staffer pushes fresh celery into a chipper, while another leafs kale. Around the spacious, newly remodeled kitchen, others chop hundreds of broccoli florets—the heads will go out to various Berkeley schools for salad, while the stems will be made into soup. A child’s drawing of a friendly octopus, posted on the door to an adjoining office, exhorts “Eat Natural Healthy Food!” And so it is done.
Every day, this staff makes 7,100 breakfasts and lunches for students at each of Berkeley’s 16 public schools.
Like in most cities nationwide, Berkeley’s students were once fed processed food that was precooked and frozen for easy distribution. Today, nearly everything is made from scratch. Berkeley schools have spent three years reshaping the menu and becoming dedicated to serving food that is healthy, fresh, local and delicious. Although other Bay Area school districts are starting to follow suit—San Francisco lets students choose fresh fruit and low-fat vegetable side dishes, Mount Diablo has chucked its deep-fat fryers and Oakland is offering salad bars—Berkeley is still the only district of its size in the nation to completely overhaul its food program. Now everyone is wondering: Is it working? Can this level of fresh, organic and local for so many students be sustained? And what will happen when the visionary and energetic woman leading the way heads to Boulder, Colo., in June?
At the center of this revolution—not just for Berkeley but for the nation—is the diminutive, self-described “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper. Cooper, Berkeley’s director of nutrition, has a wide smile and short-trimmed brownish hair and is dressed in neatly pressed chef’s whites. From her small frame bursts boundless energy; she never rests, from the moment the kitchen’s staff begins cooking at 5 a.m., until they finally close at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.
When the 55-year-old food maven is not lugging kegs of garbanzo beans off the loading dock in back, she’s directing staff where to move the racks of frozen meat, tubs of apples and pallets of milk cartons. When there’s a lull, she picks up a knife and begins chopping broccoli herself.
“When I started, there wasn’t a stove in a Berkeley kitchen,” she says as she chops. “I had 60 employees and none of them actually knew how to cook. They just knew how to operate box cutters and can crushers. That’s all we needed, because everything either came in a can or frozen in a cardboard box.”
Today, the new King kitchen—opened in August after an $8.7 million renovation—is fully stocked, with pots and pans, ladles and whisks.
The menu has come a long way from the days of pre-wrapped pastries and “Extremo Burritos,” before Cooper took over with dishes like pasta marinara (available in both meat and vegetarian styles), Indian-style chicken or three-sisters stew (a rich stew made from squash, beans and corn).
“Are we cutting cabbage today?” asks one staffer in the King kitchen, pushing a gurney full of the leafy green vegetables. Berkeley’s produce comes fresh from Full Belly Farm in Davis, Riverdog Farm in Guinda, and Flatland Flower Farm in Sebastopol.
“Yes, for stir fry,” says Cooper.
Cooper thinks for a minute, eyeballing the cart. “These here,” she says decisively. “The rest we can use for coleslaw.”
Besides freshness, Berkeley’s menu also stresses organic, locally grown food. Thirty percent of the food served in the district’s cafeterias is local, and all produce is regionally grown, mostly from the California corridor. Cooper says that the food’s origin is just as important as its quality because when foods travel a shorter distance to end up on your plate, they use less fossil fuels in their transportation. Food has to be sustainable, both for the health of kids and the health of the economy and environment, she says.
“I really started focusing on what we teach kids,” said Cooper. “The first thing we try to teach them is about regional usage. We need to start thinking about whether we need to move food 100 miles before we eat it. Then we started talking to kids about organic food. Most school districts can’t afford organic, but we as a nation need to start thinking about this. We can’t keep feeding our kids pesticides and antibiotics and hormones.”
Last month, Cooper started dividing her time between Berkeley and Boulder, Colo., where she will move after June. Since she took over as nutrition director in Berkeley three years ago, the district has become the national standard that other schools aspire to. (An independent report recently documented that kids who eat Berkeley’s school lunches take in two-thirds more vegetables than kids who bring school lunches or eat in other districts.) Kathleen Corrigan, director of food and nutrition services at the Mt. Diablo Unified School District—itself no slouch in implementing healthier meal options—joked that Berkeley “made me feel so inadequate.”
One of Cooper’s proudest accomplishments as nutrition director was eliminating high-fructose corn syrup, an insidious processed sugar found in nearly every processed food on the supermarket shelf. Studies link it (more so than regular sugar) to elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the body and increased instances of obesity. Cooper keeps it out of her food by insisting that every meal be prepared from basic ingredients.
Since her days as the executive chef of the Putney Inn in Vermont, Cooper has always been passionate about good food. But it was only after attending a Chefs Collaborative Conference in Puerto Rico several years ago (featuring author and nutritionist Joan Gussow) that she began to think about what went into the food we eat. She began investigating, and the result was Bitter Harvest, her explosive book detailing the dark side of food—from pesticides in farming to the chemical additives in processing. After that, Cooper was invited to work as nutrition services director at the Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., where she developed a menu based on local, organic, seasonal and sustainable food. She’s been living the life of a “renegade lunch lady” ever since (“It’s coming up on a decade,” she mused, “I need some sort of golden spork award for that!”), transforming cafeterias in schools across the country. Most recently, Chez Panisse founder and East Bay food guru Alice Waters invited Cooper to work her unique abilities as nutrition director at the Berkeley Unified School District. The Chez Panisse Foundation has contributed more than $4 million to Berkeley school lunch reform efforts and the Edible Schoolyard project that teaches kids about gardening, nutrition and healthy food.
“The kids in Berkeley are lucky to have Ann—especially when you consider what passes for school lunch in many parts of the country,” said Jean Saunders, director of school wellness at the Healthy Schools Campaign, a not-for-profit advocacy organization based in Illinois. “Ann Cooper is really at the forefront of this movement to change all that.”
“People say that kids won’t eat healthy food if available because kids’ palates are different,” said Saunders. “But Ann and others see that if you give them good food prepared attractively and give them a context to help them understand the health benefits, they will eat it. It doesn’t make sense just to tell them to eat broccoli. You have to tell them why. Nutrition education is an absolutely critical part.”
To that end, Cooper has done more than just reform the lunchroom. Kids learn from everything they see at school, Cooper says, and they don’t stop just because they’re taking a break for lunch. In the fall, each child brings home an elegant and artistic school lunch calendar (with print and design costs donated by local companies) that contains the entire menu for the year as well as recipes for soups, salads and other dishes.
“I’m in charge of all cooking and gardening classes in our district,” said Cooper. “They serve this good food in the cafeteria. They learn these recipes for these meals in classes, and they grow these foods in the gardens. It’s hands-on experience and academic curriculum to tie it together. We have to make kids understand that their food choices make a big difference.”
“The kids definitely weren’t learning anything good from the way lunch used to be,” she continued. “They learned that bad food is okay, that big corporations know best what we should be feeding kids, that a chicken nugget is a food group. Anything that happens during a school day is something that they absorb.”
Cooper doesn’t mince words when she talks about the state of food in this country.
“The current status of school lunches in this country is horrible,” she said. “It’s tater tots and pizza, and we as a nation should be ashamed of what we’re feeding our kids.”
The quality of school lunches has always been controversial, but most nutritionists agree that the school lunch program as it stands now could improve—a lot. The program began in 1946 under the National School Lunch Act, as a way to provide free or reduced-cost lunches to needy students, and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Part of the problem is that school dietary guidelines were originally written at a time when parents and health experts feared children weren’t getting enough to eat. USDA guidelines require schools to give kids one-third of their daily calories in lunch, and the easiest way to meet this requirement on the cheap is to up the food’s fat content.
“What you get is a lot of really unhealthy food and a whole lot of frustrated school lunch directors,” said Susan Levin, a staff nutritionist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. “The way the system is organized, you might as well flip the food pyramid upside down. You give all high-sugar, high-fat foods to schools for cheap.”
That isn’t all. Health advocates also point to the fact that the USDA is a schizophrenic entity with two mandates—to protect the health of the U.S. public and to promote the sale of U.S. agricultural products. Many school lunch reform advocates criticize the agency for making the latter its priority, something that, they say, has led to school cafeterias becoming dumping grounds for excess meat and dairy products.
“There’s a huge lobbying system in place for large agricultural corporations to lobby the USDA to push their products,” said Levin. “It’s really a huge conflict of interest for the USDA to write nutrition guidelines; that’s something that’s better put in the hands of a different agency, like the Department of Health or the Centers for Disease Control.”
Many say that USDA’s attitude about nutrition is well illustrated by the 1981 ketchup-gate scandal, when the agency under Ronald Reagan proposed a cost-saving measure to designate ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. The proposal was dropped after a public outcry.
Cooper agrees that the USDA isn’t safeguarding what goes into school lunches, and for her the issue isn’t one that can wait.
“If we continue to feed kids bad food, if we don’t teach them what good food is, what we’re going to have are kids with a life less long than our own,” she said. Cooper explains that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that one of every three Caucasian children and half of all African-American and Latino kids will be insulin dependent within a decade. “The CDC says that kids born after 2000 could be the first generation to have shorter lives than their parents,” Cooper adds. “Things need to change.”
And one of the places where things need to change is in neighboring Oakland.
It’s lunchtime at Peralta Elementary in North Oakland. Kids trek past a folding table where they can grab the school lunch. The meal offered includes fish sticks and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, both prewrapped. At first glance it’s hardly what one would call healthy—but both the sticks’ breading and the sandwiches’ bread are whole grain. The meal also comes with a kiwi fruit, something unusual when many districts would rather not deal with the added hassle of perishable items.
But the big news here is the salad bar, newly installed in early November. It’s a small cart on wheels, low to the ground to give kids easy access, with items like broccoli, cauliflower, shredded carrots, pickle slices, jalapeños and whole apples. Complete with sneeze guard, it looks like something that should be in a restaurant rather than a school cafeteria.
The Peralta salad bar isn’t an anomaly in Oakland. To date, approximately 39 of Oakland’s 101 schools have salad bars; the district has concentrated its early reform efforts on schools that are either classified as low performance or where more than 50 percent of the student population qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal.
Oakland’s nutrition director Jennifer LeBarre says salad bars are only the beginning.
“Unfortunately, a lot of schools still don’t have facilities or have facilities that need improvement,” she said. “We’re rolling changes out slowly, because we want it to be sustainable. We don’t want to have all these great changes one year, and then run out of the money to keep them going.”
Although Oakland has far to go to catch up to Berkeley, the district has been quietly making major changes in the way lunch is served—at least in some schools with high parent involvement.
In this cash-strapped district, parents are an invaluable resource. Parent volunteers help out in the Peralta lunchroom, and today moms Tamar Schnepp and Jenny Summers are guiding young students over to the salad bar. It’s their job to make sure that kids don’t get so excited by the ordinary lunch fare that they forget to look at the fresh produce. While schools can’t force kids to eat their veggies, requiring every child to walk past the bar at least reminds them of the option.
“We always have two student helpers as well,” said Schnepp. “And this one kid is always pushing the cauliflower, except that he calls it the ‘white broccoli.’ He’s all, ‘Try the white broccoli!’ When you have kids pushing it to kids, that’s when they really start to listen.”
The salad bar isn’t the same every day. Oakland experiments with different vegetables to see what the kids will eat.
“You never know what the kids will go for,” said Schnepp. “Like tomatoes or jalapeños. I thought, ‘There’s no way they’ll go for jalapeños.’ And, sure enough, the first day, they were pretty wary. On the second day, some of the Latino kids started to recognize them and give them a try. They passed the word on to other students, told them they were good to eat. By the third day, all the kids were eating them.”
“This is really good food for the resources they’ve got here,” agreed Jenny Summers. “I’d be happy with my kid eating here. I usually have a dollar in my pocket and she’ll bug me for it so she can get a salad.” (The à la carte salad costs one dollar.)
Many Oakland parents are excited by the changes, though frustrated at their slow pace. Julie Quiroz-Martinez, whose daughter attends second grade at Peralta, praised the new salad bar, but added her own caveat.
“The salad bar is fabulous because it offers fresh vegetables every day,” she said. “While we always packed fresh veggies in her lunch before, the salad bar is more flavorful for her and convenient for us. I’m baffled as to why OUSD insists on putting raisins and cranberries in the lettuce rather than having them as an add-in, but that’s tinkering with a remarkably well-intentioned and well-executed effort. I wish, of course, that the produce were organic.”
Other parents criticized the salad bars as too bland and unappetizing to attract students’ attention, saying that older students would be more likely to eat off campus or purchase junk food from the school snack bar (some Oakland schools still operate snack bars in addition to the school lunch program). LeBarre said that school snack bars are still required to adhere to the district’s wellness policy, which states all food and beverages sold on school grounds must “promote good health and meet or exceed all state and federal requirements.”
Peralta parent Anita Tenley said that she didn’t let her kids buy school lunches after they had bad food experiences at Crocker Highlands Elementary and Montera Middle, two other Oakland schools. “It always seemed to be stuff shipped from some central location and just heated up,” she said. A Bret Harte parent, who asked not to be named, described the food at her son’s school as “bland and uninteresting,” saying that most students skipped lunch to buy food at the school snack bar.
“The snack bar serves such nutritious items as fries, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, slushies, chips and cookies,” she said, facetiously. “According to my son, the difference between chicken strips and chicken nuggets is that the strips are bigger and have 25 percent more chicken relative to batter. The nuggets are about 50 percent batter. The snack bar may claim to be complying with nutrition guidelines by using pre-fried food that is baked to reheat and not deep fried on the premises. I think that is a meaningless distinction.”
Ultimately, LeBarre hopes that Oakland will reach the point where Berkeley is now, with all meals prepared from scratch in a school kitchen. Last year, LeBarre notes with pride, the district began making its own spaghetti sauce from scratch. But she admits that Oakland still has a long way to go.
In a 2007 survey of school lunches by the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, Oakland was awarded the label of “Most Improved School District” in recognition of its move to include vegetarian options—like the grillers’ prime burger or the peanut butter and jelly entrée—at every meal. (Oakland’s score fell in 2008, but a Physicians’ Committee spokesperson said this was because the group had switched to a new scoring methodology this year, which awarded more points for having a variety of vegetarian options every day.)
Oakland faces unique challenges. It’s the largest school district in the East Bay and the 96th largest in the country and one that’s traditionally been underfunded. As such, the district has been forced to look to outside sources to fund improvements to its school lunch program. While Berkeley is able to afford its food innovations by dedicating .03 percent of the general fund budget to nutritional services and by receiving grants from the Chez Panisse Foundation, Oakland has sought grants from Hidden Valley, Bechtel and Albertsons, among others. In some schools, like Joaquin Miller and Montclair, the new salad bars were paid for by PTA funds, typically money raised by parents.
Some private and charter schools have contracted with outside agencies to try to solve the lunch program dilemma. Children’s Choice works with 70 Bay Area schools to provide healthy, environmentally friendly menu choices for kids. Revolution Foods is a for-profit social venture dedicated to reforming the way people think of school lunch—both what kids buy and what they bring. Co-founder Kirsten Tobey said the organization partners with local suppliers, like Clover Stornetta Farms and the Farmers and Growers Collaborative, to get healthy, organic foods into schools at competitive prices.
Revolution Foods’ own brand of traditional school lunch staples is also available for sale through nationwide retailers like Whole Foods; Tobey said that the Lunchbox Program is a good option for parents whose students attend schools that don’t serve a hot lunch. If a parent is making a bag lunch with foods from Revolution’s Lunchbox Program, they know they’ll be using sugar-free peanut butter or high-quality grape preserves.
“The food being served in schools is atrocious,” said Neil Grimmer, general manager of Revolution Food’s Lunchbox Program. “It’s not contributing to long-term health. When you feed kids bad food, you immediately see the effects in moodiness and poor academic performance. Fundamentally, we want to change eating habits for life.”
Some Oakland schools like Sequoia, on Lincoln Avenue near MacArthur, have become known for their lunch and nutrition program, which includes outdoor education in the school garden. (Garden seeds are donated by Ace Hardware on Grand Avenue in Oakland.) Sequoia garden teacher Sue Morgan said that working in a garden helps kids to understand where their food comes from, a key element in establishing lifelong healthy eating patterns.
“Getting to eat the fruits and vegetables that we planted earlier in the year is really the grand finale,” said Morgan, who this year led 110 elementary school students in growing red lettuce, arugula, snow peas and radishes. “Some of these kids had never tried snow peas before this, but, if they like what they taste, they may lobby at home for their parents to buy them. A big part is just introducing them to these foods.”
Sequoia is just one of 63 Oakland schools with gardens. The district operates a Harvest of the Month education program that highlights seasonal fruits and vegetables at 20 schools (February’s picks are red cabbage and tangerines). The district also plans to install “wellness kiosks” that are bulletin boards full of health and nutrition information in all its cafeterias to help teach students about food choices.
Oakland is typical of schools struggling to improve—more than anything, it’s a question of money.
Under the school lunch program, children from families living at or below the poverty level are eligible for free lunches. Children in a family of four that brings in less than $27,560 a year qualify for free lunch; children from a family of four living on less than $39,220 a year qualify for reduced lunch rates. Children who don’t meet the qualification requirements can buy lunch for full price—$3 in both Berkeley and Oakland—although that price is still subsidized by the government, to an extent.
School districts are reimbursed for meals served at a rate of $2.57 per meal by the USDA. Some states kick in more—the California Department of Education website says that California schools can be reimbursed an additional 16 cents for every free or reduced price meal sold. That reimbursement money has to cover all aspects of the meal, including labor and transportation. Ultimately, schools are typically left with only $1 per lunch for ingredients.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s hard to make a meal for $1,” said Jean Saunders. “It’s become even more difficult recently because, also, you have to remember that food prices have gone up dramatically in the last six months. A lot of schools have been able to sell items separately in an à la carte program and that can help bring in some extra money even if kids aren’t buying the full meal.”
Alexis Steines, spokesperson for the national School Nutrition Association, says increased food prices make it hard for lunch programs to stay in the black. But the financial constraints, she says, have spawned alternatives, some of which are more environmentally friendly. “A lot of schools are trying some really creative things, like using sliced tomatoes instead of cherry tomatoes, which are usually considered more child-friendly because they’re smaller,” she explained. “They’ll serve spaghetti instead of lasagna, because it’s a cheaper noodle. They’ll pay closer attention to portion size, or not using disposable silverware, or only giving each kid one napkin.”
Kathleen Corrigan, Mt. Diablo’s director of nutrition services, is watching the prices with concern. She recently got notice that the price of rice had doubled from a year ago, going from $18 to $34 a bag.
“It’s a magic act to keep meal prices down,” she said. Last year, we switched from Styrofoam to compostable lunch trays. Now we always have to evaluate every purchase and ask: can we keep this thing going in the future?”
Berkeley has managed to maintain its program with a grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation and an unusually high district commitment, but it isn’t easy. Cooper still buys bulk items through the USDA commodity program, although she makes a conscious decision to select fruits and vegetables. (Kumar Chandran, a nutrition policy advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, said that most schools prefer to order meat and dairy products through the commodity program, where they are far cheaper than on the open market.)
School lunches work on economies of scale: since the same facilities and transport infrastructure that feeds five students can feed 500 just as easily, the solution to financial problems is often to get more kids buying lunch.
Cooper said that participation declined in the Berkeley lunch program when she first started introducing changes, as students missed the pizzas and potato chips that they were accustomed to. Numbers dipped to 4,500 total meals but are now rising back to more than 7,000 as kids give the new dishes a try.
Although the nutrition program is supported by district funds and outside grants, Cooper said it only needs to serve an additional 300 lunches a day to become budget neutral, a goal she hopes to accomplish this year. That’s partly why she’s orchestrated a big push to get the word out about the program, complete with promotional signs and banners around schools.
In addition to getting more kids to buy lunch, schools are trying to make ends meet by serving breakfast as well. School districts can actually save money on government-subsidized breakfasts that can then offset the higher costs of lunches. Currently, Berkeley offers free universal breakfast, giving every K-12 student a selection of fresh fruit, fresh baked goods and milk regardless of need.
“We are lucky to have nutrition services directors in Oakland and Berkeley who are enlightened and understand the nutritional needs of our students,” said Christopher Waters, a former member of the steering committee of the OUSD Coordinated School Health Council who advocated strongly for the Oakland salad bars. “Unfortunately, they (and we) are severely restricted by federal funding so we are relying on outside grants to fund enhancements like salad bars, and other creative methods to improve both the nutritional quality and appeal of our kids’ meals.”
“We have a long way to go but we are working on it,” continued Waters. “I think it would do injustice to characterize the situation as meeting resistance from our food service departments. There could be greater local commitment. Berkeley spends about 1 percent of its total budget on nutrition services, and Oakland only spends a fraction of that. But, of course, Oakland has a lot more problems to throw its money at than Berkeley does. By and large, it’s about getting more commitment from the Fed.”
Schools have to juggle a lot of concerns when they write their menus—making sure to follow USDA guidelines while making food healthier and always staying within budget. Then there’s the pesky question of getting kids to actually eat.
The Oakland district eliminated potatoes from elementary cafeterias, replacing tater tots and French fries as side dishes with zucchini coins, broccoli florets and mandarin oranges. And in 2006, the district eliminated 90 percent of white bread and white flour from its meals. Hamburger buns and sandwich breads served are entirely whole grain or whole wheat now. But, LeBarre says, bagels and English muffins have proven more difficult to replace—although she’s sought out healthier alternatives, students have consistently rejected them in taste tests.
“To some degree, we have to deal with what students want as opposed to what’s good for them,” said LeBarre.
To that end, Oakland and other school districts are reluctant to completely do away with some traditional lunchroom favorites—although they’re not above subtly altering the recipe.
“We can’t take some things off the menu that kids love,” said Corrigan of Mt. Diablo. “We need to generate income. We still keep old favorites. We still have nachos, but we use a high-fiber, low-sodium chip and a low-fat cheese, and whole beans to provide protein. But you wouldn’t know it to look at it, so a lot of parents see it and say, ‘Why do you serve this junk food?’”
Even in Berkeley, eliminating nachos proved out of the question. School lunch sales plummeted when Cooper removed the chip dish from the menu, so she quickly brought it back, albeit with changes—flax-seed chips and real cheese (not that unnaturally orange cheese product).
Saunders, from the Healthy Schools Campaign, said that schools could leverage parent support to get kids to accept healthy choices. Even something as simple as asking parent volunteers to open milk cartons for kindergarteners can be useful because if the cartons are open, the milk may get drunk, she says. She encourages parents to be lunchroom volunteers, set examples of healthy eating at home, instigate and tend school gardens and give kids consistent messages about nutrition and food.
Just as Berkeley’s program seems to be finding solid ground, Cooper—like a foodie Mary Poppins—is off to reform another public school district. She says Berkeley will likely reorganize its current staff to fill her position and is confident that the department’s qualified and experienced people will be able to carry on what’s been started. She said the Chez Panisse Foundation that helped jumpstart the effort stopped granting money last year knowing that Berkeley Unified’s program could survive on its own. So far, so good—as long as more kids buy meals at school.
Cooper remains convinced that change is possible for any school district and given the resources, could repeat the transformation she’s worked in Berkeley. She says schools need support in five main areas including procuring healthy food, improving facilities, training food-service workers, educating parents and the community, and raising money.
That last one, she admits, is the biggest stumbling block. “For most schools, there’s just not enough money,” she said.
Cooper wants more than piecemeal financial solutions, though. She thinks the only real way to solve the problem is to examine our priorities as a nation and ask ourselves: What harm are we doing by underfunding school lunches, by ignoring our children’s nutrition?
“We’re seeing sick kids get sicker and sicker,” said Cooper. “It’s a social justice issue, because the kids who need it the most, who can’t afford to pay, are the ones who are getting this lousy food. We need to change this whole paradigm with kids and food. We have to make kids understand that their food choices make a big difference. In a country as rich as this, every school child in America should be able to have a good meal.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. His work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, Sacramento News and Review, and PBS Mediashift.