After Berkeley, school lunches will never be the same

When Helen De Michiel was shooting Lunch Love Community, a series of short films focused on Berkeley’s groundbreaking school lunch program, she would often interrupt her desk work to drop in to King Middle School to see what was on the menu for lunch.

Sharing the food with the school kids, chatting with the cooks and watching the care taken by the servers, dishwashers and cleaners all translated into material for the documentary, the making of which she also documented on her Notes from the Field blog.

In one entry, De Michiel, co-director and co-producer of Lunch Love Community with Sophie Constantinou, writes: “The school lunch cooks are planting seeds for future memories. At some point later in their lives, the kids who have gone through these lunch lines will remember the fine smell of delicately seasoned pinto beans, the crunch of the fresh Mexican slaw, and the ceiling light in the Commons rooms, and that moment when they were twelve years old and peeling a perfect Clementine orange to taste. This is how we make change on a daily level, one plate at a time.”

The films remind us of Berkeley’s pioneering role in laying the groundwork for the national school lunch reform movement now being espoused by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Lunch Love Community will make its big screen premiere at Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, February 13 at 2:30 pm, with a screening, conversation and reunion of special guests, including the chefs, teachers, parents and academics who created the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative. Also joining Helen De Michiel and Sophie Constantinou will be Bonnie Christensen, Executive Chef at the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative, school lunch reform advocate Joy Moore, Stephen Rutherford from John Muir Elementary School, and Charlotte Biltekoff from UC Davis’s departments of Food Science and Technology and American Studies.

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  • No name, please

    People love the story of the Berkeley lunch revolution so much that — just as it happened with the American Revolution — sentimentality obscures some of the harder issues at play, many of which are not going away. I’d like to stipulate that I’m not a BUSD employee, I have never met most of the staff in the lunchroom, and I don’t know people at the Chez Panisse Foundation. I’d like to remain anonymous in my comments.

    A vast number of resources were committed at the outset when Chef Ann Cooper (“The Renegade Lunch Lady”) was recruited to run the program for the first 18 months or so. Chef Ann’s participation brought visibility to the program. The New Yorker interviewed her at length, she conducted a number of public appearances, and so on. It should be noted that Chef Ann’s role as public ambassador for the lunch program absorbed a large percentage of her time, and it fell to Chef Bonnie Christensen and her assistant Chef Joan Gallagher to make some very tough daily decisions. For example, the new lunch team challenged itself to cook from scratch, but they had to use kitchens and equipment where the only upgrades done in the prior 30 years facilitated the grand tradition of Defrost And Reheat. (Luckily, the team today cooks out of brand new kitchens at King Middle School.)

    While still working in BUSD, Chef Ann brought focus to the new world of the school lunchroom, making appearances, consulting with lots of other school districts and occasionally – – like, maybe every other week, or so I’ve been told by those who worked there at the time – – stopping by the kitchen at King. After several months she left for the Boulder Colorado district. I’m sure Chef Ann was up-front with the Chez Panisse people about her mode of operation, but it’s frustrating that Chef Ann kept getting so much credit for making the changes when it was clearly Chef Bonnie who had to hit the ground every morning at 4 or 5 am and make the whole thing happen.

    Lots of gains have been made, thanks to all this DAILY hard work. Still, staff retraining of career employees appears to challenge Bonnie’s team far beyond all other challenges. These challenges aren’t going away. It’s easy to understand why staff recruited for low wages in the 1980s (for example), working a unionized BUSD job for 10 or 20 or more years, would dislike today’s vastly-changed landscape. BUSD could hire workers in the past who had no food service industry experience and no real interest in nutrition. Today, those workers are asked to cook large amounts of food from scratch, and they have neither the skills nor the interest. They’re cooking food now that they’ve never cooked at home, food they don’t enjoy eating, and they feel like the way they’re used to feeding decades of school kids is now dismissed as unhealthy for kids. (And of course it is unhealthy.) But they really don’t like the situation. Consequently, some lunchroom staff make zero effort to connect with the kids and help kids appreciate new and unfamiliar foods. On the contrary: at our BUSD elementary school there was a period over several months where lunchroom staff were screaming (literally!) at the kids, and enforcing an Eating In Silence policy so that the kids would eat their food as rapidly as possible which would get the lunch cycle done quicker. You can imagine how that atmosphere endeared the kids to lunchroom food. There was no easy fix to the lunchroom war. The lunchroom employees didn’t report to the principal, so there was no direct relationship there, and the PTA was politely refused when it asked to form a joint parent/staff lunch ‘task force’.

    All that happened last year, and maybe it has subsided somewhat, I’m not sure. But I would suspect that lunchroom tensions live on throughout the district. And since BUSD is having an ever-harder time recruiting more ‘retail-price’ student customers to buy lunch and support the program, they’re going to have to focus on that all-important connection between the lunchroom staff and the student.

    So if Berkeleyside’s intrepid food blogger Sarah Henry ever wanted to wander through some of these issues, that would be cool.

    Chef Bonnie, you are amazing, and I wish you had gotten a lot of the accolades that went to Chef Ann for so long. And never for a moment would I ever be able to walk in your chef’s clogs!

  • Kizza

    I am deeply grateful for all the people who pushed for this transformation of school lunch in Berkeley. We are VERY lucky here. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and it’s still a work in progress. My first grade son doesn’t like the enforced silence, and feels quite rushed at lunch, but he finds the food delicious. He looks forward to it. He tells me enthusiastically about the recipes that he makes in cooking class, and encourages us to make those recipes at home, too. He frequently pipes up with nutrition or botany facts which he learns from the farm & garden program. I appreciate that ideas like this can gain traction and be pioneered here.

  • I’m really glad that I took the time to watch the video and read both No Name, Please and Kizza’s comments. I, too, am so grateful for the hot lunch options at my kids’ BUSD school lunch — they’ve come home having eaten veggies that were scorned at home.

    At our school some parents advocated switching recess and lunch so that the kids get to have recess first, before eating. This seems to have helped with the speed-eating that had been happening before. I am concerned though about the “enforced silence” and am going to look into that at our school. I appreciate the issues that No Name, Please raised because those are the particulars that often aren’t very transparent.

  • Bruce Love

    re: “On the contrary: at our BUSD elementary school there was a period over several months where lunchroom staff were screaming (literally!) at the kids, and enforcing an Eating In Silence policy”

    To the extent that this is true, it is bullying by staff against students and, incidentally, violates students’ first amendment righs. That deserves a lawsuit, firings, and more.

    re: “My first grade son doesn’t like the enforced silence, ”

    Ya think?

  • No name, please

    Thanks Bruce. I’d agree that it does deserve “firings and more.” I would suppose that the principals might not want to stand up to employees that they do not directly supervise. And if they don’t, then they need to grow a backbone. And, parents should be taking their concerns to the district.

  • laura menard

    Oh please, Berkeley is not so special.

    My nephews down in Ventura Unified have received quality lunches including salad bar for over 10 years, at a low price. They have multiple options for middle school music classes, true GATE programming and school choice for magnet programs, all without parcel tax.

  • Alicia

    Our 2nd grade daughter just mentioned to us last week that she felt intimidated by a lunch room staff person who was telling her to quiet down and finish her lunch. We were slightly concerned about this, but reading this, I am feeling a bit alarmed that this seems to be going throughout BUSD. This definitely deserves some attention and as an elementary BUSD parent, I will be looking into it.

  • hungry grownup

    Many of the schools in Berkeley don’t have cooking kitchens. They have steam tables and warming ovens, and they get already-cooked food trucked over from the central kitchen at King. Pasta, pizza, and burritos might start off wholesome and delicious, but they lose most of their tastiness if they are taken across town and reheated. This is a major pitfall with the BUSD lunches that never seems to be mentioned.

  • Kizza

    I need to back-track on something I wrote. After I read no-name’s comment, I asked my son if there was a “no talking rule” during lunchtime at his school. He said yes. Since then, I’ve asked him more about it, and he has given other answers. Now he says that yes, the kids talk and that it can get very noisy, and that he thought I meant something else. So–I’m sorry that I communicated bad facts. His response on feeling rushed has remained very consistent, though.

    If you spend any time on parenting blogs & websites, and the subject of school lunch comes up, you quickly realize that high quality school lunches are few and far between. So yes, I do firmly believe that Berkeley parents are lucky in this regard. It’s rarer than it should be.

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