Berkeley’s school lunch program is flawed, say insiders

"If They Cook It, They Will Eat It", one of the short films in the Lunch Love Community series. Photo: Sophie Constantinou.

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

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 key players in Berkeley's school food reform. Photo: BUSD.

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 turning 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 said 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.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

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  • laura menard

    Really glad to see a teacher and others willing to criticize and identify problems, IMHO, Berkeley schools and the city do not promote a culture of constructive criticism, which is another flaw.

  • laura menard

    B-tech students and the principal have fought against closing the campus at lunch for years. Why expand lunch service when the vast majority of students at both high school chose to go downtown to spend their money.

    This is just more fiscal irresponsibly and poor educational programming and an example of insiders in a position to benefit claiming inequity using selective information to promote their cause.

    You can’t have it both ways…….

  • another BUSD parent

    while the food is VERY good at my kids’ school, the same issues exist as at John Muir-swipe cards that are difficult for the littler kids, HUGE amounts of waste, not enough time to eat. No wonder the older BUSD kids leave their campus!

  • http://www.sippey.com/ Michael Sippey

    I love the idea of the Berkeley school lunch program. But have to agree that the execution of the program at our elementary school is flawed. We end up sending our kids lunches packed from home every day, because at Thousand Oaks there are continued issues with long lines and issues getting the kids food…which means that they have no time to eat. Every day that we’ve had the kids do school lunch (instead of “home lunch”) the kids (1st and 4th graders) come home and complain that the line took too long and that they didn’t have enough time to eat.

    We’ve talked with the school administration about this on multiple occasions, but nothing’s happened yet. There’s some sort of state of California regulation that says that staff can’t help the kids plate their lunches because then there’s an opportunity for fraud in accounting for subsidized lunch programs, which means that the kids (even kindergartners!) have to serve their own food, which really slows down the process of getting kids through the line. I could be misrepresenting that issue (it sounded a bit absurd to me), and I’m not sure what’s been done since the beginning of the school year to address that issue, but our kids are still reporting long lines which leads to not enough time to actually eat!

  • Claudia

    My kid just won’t eat the lunches. (Truth: she’s a conservative eater AND I pack her a sandwich on Acme bread every day.) She says the food is awful and the lines are long plus the cafeteria “scene” in middle school really turns her off. She goes to the library or book group or knitting just to avoid the scene.
    I have major King resentment. Maybe a benefactor could turn her gracious eye to the other middle schools that deperately need her. Those cafeterias are awful. The gardens are great but the garden kitchens are not half of what the King garden kitchen is.
    And get this: if you want your Berkeley kid to get the benefit of the King garden in the summer for camp, they aren’t welcome if they don’t go to King. Whaaaat? That seems backwards to
    me.

  • tizzielish

    Gosh. .. I don’t have any children or grandchildren in Berkeley public schools but it’s my community and I care, a lot, about feeding children good lunches at school. It sounds like lots of people care. And it sounds like many people invest a lot of their time, paid school employees and caring community members, and still there are problems. This seems to have all the ingredients for success and yet school lunches are presented, here on berkeleyside, as not doing very well.

    Does someone see solutions?

    I am starting to wonder if most human systems have become just functioning instead of thriving. There is money for food, paid staff, facilities, caring parents, hungry children and it doesn’t seem to come together. It sounds like there is a general agreement that school lunches in Berkeley are better than they used to be but not as good as they could be. Is that about right? What needs to shift?

    As far as bringing equity to Berkeley Tech, it seems flatly unacceptable to give one school short shrift over another. Flat flat flat out wrong. How can that ever have been permitted to happen?

    Our society is complex, eh?

  • tizzielish

    I am a little grateful that I am not a BSUD parent. I don’t think I could stand seeing King get preferential treatment. It’s no right to favor one school with better facilities just because a local celebrity has graced that school with her attention.

    A surprise for me in this story: not many people of color in the photo. What are the racial statistics for BUSD students. I live near Berkeley High, see students from there all over downtown on weekday afternoons. Lots of great diversity. But I only see one black person in the photo. Don’t nonwhite Berkeley public school parents get involved in lunch?

  • Saganaki

    tizzielish, regarding people of color: I see 5 heads in the photo of the students. Left foreground seems to be African American; left background seems to be maybe Hispanic? Other 3 are presumably white, though it’s not a stretch to imagine the front-center blond girl having some Asian blood (though if I had to bet, I’d call Northern Euro). One about doing headcounts like that: Oftentimes it’s difficult to differentiate mixed-ethnicity from white.

  • David L.

    Parents and kids have routinely complained for years that there isn’t enough time for kids to eat. The staff should prepare the individual servings before the kids arrive for lunch. They could lay the lunches out on tables, and walk around with a portable card reader for payments as the kids eat. At least there aren’t as many health department violations at the schools as there used to be. However, several BUSD schools still suffer from contaminated equipment. See City website, and insert the word “School” : http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/environmentalhealth/inspections.asp There is no excuse for repeated contamination in public school kitchens.

  • Elmwood Neighbor

    I did the search (didn’t know you could do this). All the BUSD violations are minor (all but one was for contaminated equipment). Minor: Does not pose an immediate risk to public health, but warrants correction.

  • Beat

    We, too, overhauled our school food here in Santa Cruz. We, too, have a former fine dining chef overseeing school meals. Unfortunately, our chef is far more interested in self promotion than in feeding hungry kids.

  • SLH

    Improvement on logistics idea: have kids Play First, Eat after. Then they don’t rush to get out. Articles I read cited great reduction in waste, more food inside the kids, calmer post-lunch classroom periods. Set playground time at 20, 30, 35 minutes, whatever. Bell/whistles signal RECESS is over, it’s (wash hands and?) Eating Time. Then GIVE them time, like + -15 minutes.
    Same total Lunch/Recess time. “Yard Duty” people supervise eating period. Children gain NO playtime from rushing thru lunch eating, so they relax a little, eat a little more.
    Simple. Effective.

  • Cragmont Parent

    My son has been eating the healthy school lunches since the first day of kindergarden. I sample the lunches about once per year, and they’re tasty enough. However, Cragmont Elementary has had the same issues — not enough time for the kids to eat and wasted food — for many years, with some improvement on average over time.

    I’ve spoken and written to Nutrition Services about this, but I’m not sure that they can control what happens at school sites. I don’t know if the cafeteria workers report to Nutrition Services, the Principal at each school, or both. In any case, I don’t know how the workers at each site are evaluated, but it seems they are very focused on getting kids out the door on time, regardless of when they were seated with their food.

    Kids at Cragmont get 20 minutes for lunch. If you haven’t brought your own, and need to procure your BUSD meal, that does seem rather tight, even with very efficient service.

    I have suggested that BUSD arrange for some Haas MBA students to do a service operations study. I have suggested that having to wolf down quality food is not the right lesson for kids.

    Does the School Board have ultimate jurisdiction? Could the Berkeley PTA Council, armed with empirical data, approach the School Board and make a case that serving healthy food in a rush, leading to waste and hungry kids, is unacceptable?

  • http://foodwithkidappeal.blogspot.com/ jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal

    tizzielish – our low income, multi-culture school did an taste off competition where all 400 students got to taste 9 fresh fruit and veg available in the lunch line. i took hundreds of photos, and have written several stories for publication. most of the best pictures I have that show the story of how the day went down include hispanic, and african american students. our school sent notes 15 home to parents for photo releases for the pictures, only 2 came back, parents either didn’t see the form in backpack, or care to have their child participate. it was translated into spanish. i would have loved to share more photos. The photos I did get releases for were mostly from parents of kids I know. Sadly, the parents of the african american and hispanic children are not as accessible at school functions and PTA events. http://tinyurl.com/4ugmwg8

    i’ll also say that i’ve stood at the trash can to observe what kids toss many times at breakfast and lunch in my sons’ elem. i see just as many uneaten nuggets and fries going into the trash as I do apples and barely nibbled celery sticks. in my school, kids have plenty of time to eat. most choose to drink their choco milk, visit with friends, nibble a few bites of carnival food on their tray and return to class.

    to all the critics who cite food waste as a problem with healthier food, it’s not. it’s universal no matter what the menu items are. either that, or kids don’t like chicken nuggets and fries as much as the world would like us to believe.

    i think two things would help that. elimination of sugary drinks (flavored milks and juice) and recess before lunch. kids get thirsty during class, so they down their tasty beverage first. then have a false sense of fullness and in just 20 minutes, don’t have hunger pangs strong enough to overcome the urge to visit and be silly with friends to get solid food down the hatch.

    we are piloting recess before lunch for one grade. i don’t have data yet, to know whether or not the 1st grade teaching team feels the schedule change improves amount eaten at lunch or classroom performance after lunch.

  • Name Withheld

    @ David L ––– I like your suggestions! Have you considered contacting the schools?

    When I was a wee lad in public schools, the lunches were always portioned out in individual serving sizes when we got there, and we simply picked up the pre-made tray we wanted and paid for it on the spot.

    We may not have gotten to choose exactly what we wanted for ourselves, but it’s hard to beat that model for efficiency.

  • Scott Byram

    I agree with Michael’s comments. As a parent of a Thousand Oaks 1st grader, I have been disappointed that my child does not have time to eat unless she brings lunch from home. We love the ideas behind the BUSD lunch program and the edible schoolyard, but the logistics make it impractical for the younger kids to participate in. The school did respond to complaints last year, and rescheduled lunch after recess, so that kids would be hungrier and in less of a hurry to get out the door to play. But our child is still apprehensive about the process of getting a plate of food and eating it, even on pizza day, which was her favorite. My guess is that in a bureaucracy with so many competing regulations around food, we will never be able to implement healthful school lunches for the younger kids. The best we can do is make them available to those who really need access to good food, and encourage the kids to participate, especially as they get older and the food service lines work better. It’s too bad they can’t enjoy this experience from an early age, when it really makes a difference in their views about food.
    I grew up eating subsidized lunches at public schools on the east coast, and I don’t recall ever feeling constrained by time, or having to wait a long time in line. The food wasn’t as healthful as what BUSD offers, but it certainly was accessible, even for kids from low income families.

  • Tom Killilea

    As a parent of a BHS freshman who started at Rosa Parks before the transition, I am proud of what BUSD has managed to do so far. There is a lot to improve, but where things are now compared to the 80% preprocessed junk that was served in the pre-Ann Cooper days (which probably generated just as much trash – I know that was true at Rosa Parks; my daughter refused to eat school lunches back then).

    I do take umbrage at the comments about the King’s “preferential treatment.” Shouldn’t the focus being on getting the same resources for other schools rather than begrudging the second largest school in the district the valuable resource which grew out of the Edible Schoolyard program (which costs the district almost nothing and benefits over 900 BUSD students)?

    Scheduling is always an issue at all the school levels. Parents concerned need to contact their principals, get involved with on-site groups, especially the School Site Councils and PTAs, and enlist the support of their teachers (who are affected directly by schedules and the kids’ learning conditions). We in Berkeley are lucky to have some of the extra resources and level of involvement that other districts would love to have. This involvement is needed to ensure that the benefits are shared throughout the district.

  • ladypants

    I think it’s important to distinguish the content and the execution – food is good, delivery is flawed. As a parent of two kids who don’t have time to get through the line, what can I do? What can the schools do? What is the district doing to address the problem and who is spearheading the solution (s)? There is a lot of passion and good ideas for how to address the delivery issues. Address the delivery issues and the inequity challenges may be addressed as well.

  • John Smith

    Solutions? The arrogance of Berkeley Unified administration. Admit they could use a little help from the real world on how to run things better rather than think they know what is best.

    Oakland Unified has an outside management team from Kaiser working with them on better management and administration. BUSD needs the same.

  • Mkuntz

    This is not just a reply to you but to many who remarked on the 20 minute lunch- it’s just not enough for anybody, to walk from class, put books away if they’re in high school, go to the cafeteria, wait in line, sit a possible maximum of 10 minutes, and then go back to class. Many would only have 5 minutes to eat. Wolfing your food, never being able to relax, make for lousy digestion and stressed humans of any age. Realistically, the district needs to program a 40 minute lunch (2 five minute passing periods at each end) and have 30 minutes for kids to get food, eat and sit down.Teachers, students and food workers would all benefit.
    They would just need to shorten each class period by 2 minutes to achieve this,  and start 4 minutes earlier,  and end 4 minutes later at the end of the day. If they can’t lose that many instructional minutes, then then just shorten passing priods if that is feasible and lengthen th schoool day by 10 minutes to give kids a better lunch and lunch experience..