Lunch Line

Teaching Good Nutrition and Sound Farming in the School Cafeteria

For many students, the cafeteria bell produces visions of long lines, hair nets and perfectly molded, ice cream scoop servings of starchy, lackluster food. But as the nation renews a focus on nutrition, several inspired school districts are dismissing this grade school nightmare with higher ideals for the standard school lunch.

In its quest to nurture both young minds and bodies, the Berkeley Unified School District passed in 1999 a food program policy designed to provide a healthy meal to each of its 10,000 students—a meal in which the nutritional content far outweighs the chemical. Integral to this 12-point plan is the phase-out of bovine growth hormones and genetically engineered ingredients, and the incorporation of locally grown, organic foods.

Students at Berkeley"s Malcolm X Elementary School enjoy locally grown food from the salad bar.Tyler 

A Bay area grower delivers organic apple juice weekly, and a distributor provides organic processed foods like tortilla chips, peanut butter and graham crackers. Organic gardens, including one at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School spearheaded by renowned chef Alice Waters, help introduce students to the principles of organic farming, and give them a hands-on role in bringing some of the food to the table. More than a dozen local farmers provide the rest of the vegetables and 40 cases of fruits the schools go through each week for breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks.

After all, “an explicit goal of the program is to not only benefit children, but organic and local farmers,” says Eric Weaver, chair of Berkeley’s Child Nutrition Advisory Committee. The district has spent about $90,000 on organic foods in the last year. Weekly visits to farmers markets, for instance, fill up the salad bars, which are opening at each of the 15 Berkeley schools.

“There is a certain responsibility in an educational environment to provide students with a healthy lunch—choices based largely on the food pyramid, with whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Laurel Lyle, the manager of the cafeteria at the Peabody Charter School in Santa Barbara, California, which began incorporating an ethic similar to Berkeley’s several years earlier. “There’s also a responsibility for kids to see that cooking fresh food is not a revolutionary or miraculous event,” she adds. “It’s really very easy.”

Lyle incorporates such organic ingredients as flour for freshly baked breads and beans for stew to carrot sticks in each meal at Peabody. As a result, kids and teachers alike who were once brown bagging it are now setting down trays at the lunch table. Food waste is vastly reduced as well, says Lyle. “Because most of the things I make are fresh and separate, anything not eaten is used the next day in something else. Other schools may throw out 100 servings of food a day. Talk about an environmental nightmare.”

The real nightmare, according to Susan Campbell of nonprofit Spirit in Action, lies in the vending machines that still provide powerful temptation. “Kids already know that they’re supposed to eat more fruits and vegetables,” says Campbell. “But if they’re still guzzling Coca-Cola and eating Snickers, it’s defeating the purpose. The chemicals they’re eating are the real culprits.”

Kids eat too much junk food, says Campbell, and most schools sell it inside their walls. As turning back this tide of sugar-laden candy and soda is not likely, Spirit in Action has invited manufacturers of natural and organic snack foods to go head-to-head with conventional a-la-carte items. A pilot project with high schools in California and Colorado will be launched this spring, offering kids looking for foods on the run a healthier alternative. Full-service kiosks will follow in the fall of 2001.

“Good nutrition impacts thinking skills,” says Sandy Neumann, program officer for education at the Center for Ecoliteracy, a public foundation that works with the Berkeley School District. “We talk about accountability, but kids are trying to be accountable when they don’t have the physical resources to call upon within their own bodies.”

Although the solution, offering fresh, local, unadulterated foods, seems logical, the barriers to reach it are many. For one, “kids are very finicky,” says Elsie Szeto, director of child nutrition services at Berkeley, and a registered dietician. “They need to be familiar with a food, or they won’t touch it. It needs a shape or form they know.” Secondly, “the food service is self-supporting,” says Szeto, “and we only have so much money to work with.”

Nine of the Berkeley schools were recently given funding to provide after-school snacks, for example. But of the 54 cents designated per student, 14 goes to overhead, leaving only 30 cents to cover the costs of food, which must be selected from two of three food groups. Although last year the snacks were entirely organic, this year conventional cheese was the only affordable choice.

Covering the cost of free and reduced meals poses another challenge. If passed, a bill now in the California State Senate would provide increased meal reimbursement for any school in the state that purchases fresh food. Related legislation has popped up elsewhere. A recent resolution passed by the city of Minneapolis urges the Minneapolis School District to consider organic foods for its lunch program; a resolution now pending in the city of San Francisco originally included such sentiment, but was eventually watered down.

“As consciousness continues to rise about globalization and lost autonomy in our lives, we’ll see more resolutions in which people say they can’t depend on our government to protect the food supply,” says Simon Harris of San Francisco’s Organic Consumer Alliance. “And that our school districts and local governments should.”

Berkeley’s program sets an important precedent, believes Harris. “School boards are looking for replicable models,” he says, “a specific list of actions, something substantive that can be taken to other school districts. Once they can say, ‘Look, this works,’ it will be replicated on a larger scale.”

This ripple effect is already occurring within Berkeley itself. Seed money from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant has cascaded into two successful bond measures and nearly $1.5 million in additional grants. The bonds earmark money to install and staff kitchens at each of the schools, enabling on-site preparation of meals now restricted to mainly frozen, pre-packaged ordeals. The grants will support nutrition education for faculty and school officials, provide garden coordinators and cooking program specialists, fund field trips to local farms and develop a business plan to ensure the program’s fiscal success.