Berkeley’s school lunch revolution: Should Oakland join?

Early this morning, I paid a visit to Berkeley Unified’s Central Kitchen, where nutrition services director Ann Cooper – “Chef Ann” – and her small staff make thousands of pounds of healthy food from scratch every day.

I expected the braised tofu and the locally grown veggies. The real surprise was what hit me before I stepped inside: the smell of food.

That might sound funny — and it would have made no sense, a generation ago, when lunch ladies actually cooked. But in the days of frozen, commodity surplus food, most school kitchens actually don’t smell like much. They definitely don’t make my stomach growl.

Two years ago, Berkeley Unified hired the former restaurant/hotel/cruise ship chef to replace the frozen food, chicken nuggets, greasy pizza and other typical cafeteria fare.

Cooper said the transformation was so difficult it almost killed her. (I think she was being facetious.) But she’s still alive, and Berkeley is one of very few school districts that cooks from scratch and doesn’t serve processed food.

The school district, which has roughly a quarter of the number of students as Oakland does, kicks in $350,000 a year from the general fund to make it happen. Cooper’s salary is paid by foundation money.

Given the rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, can — and should — nutritious, scratch cooking be made a priority in Oakland, too? Or is that destined to be buried by the district’s other pressing concerns and enormous debt?

On another note: I know that Oakland has a growing number of school vegetable gardens. I’ve also heard about efforts to improve the lunch menu, to ramp up nutrition education and to bring more salad bars to cafeterias. If anyone knows how those projects are progressing — and if they are enough — feel free to enlighten us.

image courtesy of Ann Cooper’s Web site, lunchlessons.org

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • http://www.allaboutgeorge.com George Kelly

    I sure hope they fight the good fight for it. Pressing political realities aside, kids need this kind of food — and exercise too — if they’re going to do well during school hours.

  • Skyline Teacher

    My son goes to LeConte in Berkeley. While he doesn’t always LIKE the things that are prepared, they are reasonably attractive, healthy and varied — and it saves me enormous effort making his lunch, since I would have never allowed him to eat the slop I was offered in Berkeley unified a generation ago.

    And yes, he has access to a REAL salad bar every day. This means even if he is scared by the burrito or whatever, he eats tomatoes and bell peppers with dressing, which he likes. Also, LeConte offers BREAKFAST to every kid every morning. Again, my son isn’t real impressed with the offerings (usually a rotation of focaccia, boiled eggs, cereal or muffins), but at a school where a significant number of parents think it is fine to put nacho chips and candy and soda in a kindergartner’s lunch, this is huge. My only beef with food at LeConte is that it is a very chaotic, loud cafeteria, which is not necessarily conducive to kids actually eating. My own son is pretty overstimulated by it and also is usually in a rush to get out and play. Thus, despite all the cool food, he comes home hungry.

    Also, LeConte has a very developed farm and garden program with several gardens, a full-time garden guy — Farmer Ben — and cooking classes in the after school program.

    To my mind, school food is a BIG issue. Here a Skyline, what is offered is pretty foul, and it is easy to see why my after-lunch classes are much more challenging than before lunch — kids are either wired or exhausted or both.

    Folks who aren’t convinced this is a real issue should rent “SuperSize Me!” and skip the fast food parts to the school lunch part. One school profiled saw misbehavior drop around 50% after they cut out soda/candy/junk and replaced it with school-cooked food.

  • Caroline

    The Berkeley school food improvements are admirable, and I hope they can be emulated everywhere.

    We do need to be honest about how difficult this is. Chef Ann herself has said (numerous times) in interviews that any district can do this — yet Katy’s item shows how much extra funding she gets, and Chef Ann herself also says (albeit semi-facetiously) that revamping the food almost killed her. It’s important to recognize what it takes to provide better food to students, so our communities understand that they need to step up and take some responsibility for it.

  • James Jones, Jr., Parent, etc.

    Oakland has over 30,000 students. Berkeley has close to 7,000 students. Cooking daily from scratch for 30,000 students would be a massive undertaking. Even if we used Berkeley’s numbers of roughly $50 per student (350,000 / 6850 students) that would come to $1.7 Million and then there’s the army of additional food-service employees to pay and manage.

    How much does OUSD already spend on Lunch services?

  • Katy Murphy

    James Jones, Jr., you’re back! I was beginning to wonder if you’d canceled your subscription…

    I just double-checked the California Department of Education’s Data Quest site, which shows that Berkeley Unified had 9,088 students in the 2006-07 year. Still much smaller than Oakland’s 39,000, though. (That figure doesn’t include OUSD’s charter school enrollment of over 7,000.)

  • Skyline Teacher


    With all due respect, the large numbers don’t play into this. If anything, there are economies of scale and increased buying power that should make Oakland’s program cheaper, if capitalism is still in effect. And this doesn’t need to be rolled out at every school in one year. You do trials, build the system out, etc.

    You should also factor in how expensive absenteeism and behavior problems are to the district. If kids are healthier, it saves money. Issues like nutrition and security aren’t irrelevent to academics, they are essential to it.

    My feeling is crappy food is also just one more way we tell the kids they are not worth anything to society. When a kid uses a disgusting bathroom, eats disgusting food and rides a disgustint and dangerous bus, what message are they getting? I’d drop out, too.


  • Caroline

    Skyline Teacher is right, of course, about the importance of feeding kids well. Any decent, compassionate, caring community should feed its children good food, not cut corners and feed them cheap junk. It should be a priority.

    But James is correct that it’s very, very difficult and expensive, and it’s not easier in a bigger district. I’m a school food activist in San Francisco Unified. The labor costs are crushing, and swtiching to scratch-cooked food (let alone prepared at each school site) would increase them massively — no economies of scale at all in that.

    The message we are working on in San Francisco is that it’s the COMMUNITY’s responsibility to step up and provide the extra resources needed to feed the community’s children well. The schools should not have all the responsibility dumped on them and be forced to choose between better food and classroom needs.

    It’s something of a thorn in the side of those of us who have been working this issue for a while (with considerable success, but not enough) that newcomers to the issue will pop up and tell us that Chef Ann said it’s really easy and won’t cost any extra. People demanding the impossible (all-local organic produce or in a district with 60,000 students is not realistic, and so is reinstalling working kitchens in every school) really aren’t helpful. The best information from Chef Ann is what Katy reported. It takes much more money.

  • Skyline Teacher


    Thanks for the insider perspective. I wasn’t trying to imply it was easy or cheap. However, bigger districts have correspondingly bigger budgets and it should not be an excuse. And yes, there have to be economies of scale — if you are buying more ingredients, you should get a price break for example.

    Of course, we could argue all day about money is spent in the district. I am using a textbook which comes with a gazillion bucks worth of support materials for my students — workbooks, color transparencies, etc. — but it is way over the head of 90 % of my students! The textbook is almost an impediment to my teaching in that I end up using all these worksheets because they’re there. A company is getting rich off that…

    As for labor costs, I see nothing wrong with providing some new jobs to the community. This might be another way to get parents on site, as well, either as volunteers or employees. Also, many of our students work — they could work in the kitchens, instead of commuting. Finally, ROP classes in cooking could be onsite job training for the restaurant industry.

    At the high school level, food is sold at snack bars. One place to improve the food is right there. The other day I bought a chicken sandwich. It had no vegetables on it. The chicken was disgusting, breaded and deep-fried. Would it be SO expensive to throw some lettuce and tomato on there and have it grilled instead?


  • Caroline

    Not to keep going all day, but I just have to restate that it should be THE COMMUNITY’S responsibility to take on supporting higher-quality meals. It’s just wrong in every way to expect school districts to choose between better food and classroom needs (even if, yes, textbooks are too expensive and there are other cuts to be made). I can’t believe a teacher in OUSD or SFUSD would claim that there aren’t desperate needs to be filled if the cost of high-end textbooks could be redirected to more effective uses.

    San Francisco has the money to do this if the city has the will. I’m not so sure about Oakland, sadly.

    The union that represents SFUSD caf workers (who, by the way, are the highest-paid in California, which presumably means the nation) would never let student labor be used to fill jobs that should be done by union workers. I don’t begrudge those workers their decent pay — it’s still not enough to support living in the Bay Area — but that all comes directly out of the budget that could be used to improve the food itself. It’s a zero-sum game.

    There are certainly economies of scale on some ingredients, and many ingredients are provided free as government commodities. But the ingredients that activists call for to truly improve school meals — mainly locally grown organic produce — don’t lend themselves to economies of scale.

  • Skyline Teacher

    Caroline, you know this better than I do, clearly. I guess I just don’t understand how if kids qualify for free lunch, and We the People have made that the responsibility of the school system, then that free lunch can’t be fresh and nutritious.

    Good luck getting the community to pay for this, especially in cities like SF or Oakland where the middle class, for the most part, doesn’t use the public schools. The money can and should come from the state and federal governments, which fund education.

    Personally, I don’t care that much if the produce is organic or locally grown. I’m more concerned that kids be eating foodstuffs other than fat and starch. Or going hungry altogether because the food is so nasty.

  • Doowhopper

    The eating habits of the high school students in Oakland is atrocious.I simply can’t believe the amount of swill these kids put into their mouths.I sub in the district and this year I made it one of my personal crusades to persuade the students to eat healthier.The analogy I use is the one that posits:”If you had a car,would put inferior gas in the tank if you knew it would ruin the engine?”Of course,they say no way and then I reply,”Well,why would you put food in your BODY that will ultimately mean your demise?”I get some strange looks but I need to dispense this knowledge.
    Every year the amount of obese African American and Latino youngters keeps growing.These kids are walking health disasters as stats show that 40% of black infants and 44% of Latino infants will contract diabetes type 2 with all the accompanying health problems and medical costs.
    Do any other teachers on this blog question these kid’s choices?

  • Christopher Waters

    People are sharing a common thread of views here on Ms. Murphy’s blog and on the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo! group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaklandpublicschoolparents/) about the importance of improving food served to our students, and particularly about snack bars and removal of junk food from our schools. I share those concerns. I also want to appreciate former school board member Dan Siegel for having always been a strong champion of these causes at OUSD, and current board member Greg Hodge for also focusing his advocacy on nutrition issues. However, I also want to say that while achieving these goals has always been an uphill battle, there is currently already a very dynamic, grassroots-powered mechanism in place whereby all aspects of school wellness are being addressed. It is a wide coalition of OUSD parents, staff, and community-based organization partners called the Coordinated School Health Council (CSHC). I am a member of the CSHC, and I also serve on its steering committee, as well as on two of its working group/subcommittees (the Nutrition Advisory Committee and the OUSD Garden Council). The CSHC’s broad membership includes district Nutrition Services staff, nurses, gardeners, principals, executive staff, parent activists, and organizations from The American Cancer Society and the Alameda County Public Health Department, to Oakland Parks & Rec, East Bay Conservation Corps (Civicorps), Oakland Food Connection, and many, many more in between. This group formed to establish the district-wide wellness policy that the state administrator adopted in early 2006, and now we are tasked with implementation of the policy. This has been a monumental struggle, given the virtual funding vacuum in which we have been operating; but many great minds and resources are at the table and a lot of good capacity-building work is being done. Grant funds are starting to come in and we are leveraging those in order to get more grant funding. There is momentum, but change is difficult and expensive and we need help to make things happen. I strongly encourage any of you who are interested to join the Coordinated School Health Council, or any one of its active working group/subcommittees (right now, there are three primary active working subgroups: the Nutrition Advisory Council, which Jennifer LeBarre chairs; the OUSD Garden Council, which I chair; and the Safe & Healthy School Environment working group (air quality is the main push right now on that one). That being said, there are three main component areas to Coordinated School Health, and the more support we have from community partners (people like you), the more effectively (and the more quickly) we can effect change in all of those categories. The categories are:

    -Health Education
    -Physical Education
    -Health Services
    -Nutrition Services
    -Safe & Healthy School Environment
    -Staff Wellness
    -Mental Wellness
    -Family & Community Involvement

    I have asked Jennifer LeBarre, the acting Assistant Director of Nutrition Services at OUSD, to prepare a brief list of the positive changes OUSD has made in the past few years, and to briefly list some of the other efforts underway in the Nutrition Services area. I truly believe that with more partners like Sharon and Vicki, and with pressure from other parents, the CSHC and its working groups will be able to bring about positive changes to (or an end to) the unhealthy snack bars.

    Jennifer LeBarre’s comments:

    The 2001 food policy was a basis for the new Nutrition Administrative Regulations that were adopted at last week’s Board meeting [Sept. 26]. The current AR’s [Administrative Regulations] further the work we started in 2001 by, for example:
    1. Placing limits on trans fats
    2. Placing limits on sugar content
    3. Placing further limits on items that can be served and sold through District meal programs AND other sales
    4. Addresses other food related events other than District meal program
    I have attached the adopted AR’s, What’s New in the Cafeteria flyer which details further the changes that have been made, and the NAC [Nutrition Advisory Council] Implementation Goals.

    Regarding the a la carte sales, although they are cash based we do track this income and it is used to support the District meal program and the changes we are making in it. It is regulated as are the items that are sold to generate this income.

    Another note on Berkeley, in addition to the financial support received by the Alice Waters Foundation [Chez Panisse Foundation], the District also contributes an additional 10% of the Food Services budget from the General Fund. This is equal to approximately +/- 1% of the general fund. If we received this type of funding from the General Fund it would be approximately $1.5 million. We will not receive this funding. Therefore, all changes that need to be made need to be done in a fiscally conscientious way.

    I would also encourage these parents to become involved with CSHC and NAC. Let me know if you have questions.

    Jennifer LeBarre
    Acting Assistant Director
    Oakland USD
    Nutrition Services
    900 High St.
    Oakland, CA 94601
    Phone (510)879-8348 FAX (510)879-1779

    The documents to which Jennifer refers, since they can not be attached to this comment on Katy’s blog, have been uploaded to the Coordinated School Health Council’s Yahoo! group listserv. If you join that group, you can download the files, along with a copy of the official OUSD Wellness Policy (as well as a copy of the ARs that go with that policy), by clicking on this link: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/cshc/files/blog_docs/

    Please DO read these documents — I believe you will be surprised how much headway is already being made on many of the concerns you have raised (salad bars, universal free breakfast and lunch, vending machines, snack bars, etc.).

    I’m also attaching some comments I asked Scott Burg to make on both Nutrition and the broader picture of School Wellness. Scott is a grantwriting consultant for the district who has been a tremendous asset to the forward momentum of the CSHC’s efforts.

    Here’s what Scott had to say:

    I worked w/BUSD [Berkeley Unified School District] when many elements of their School Lunch Initiative were being implemented. It is true that many of these changes were due in large part to Berkeley’s very strong local Food Policy. Tom Bates (Mayor), members of the City Councll, BUSD administration, private business, local funders and private citizens had a hand in developing this Policy. This did not happen overnight.

    The breadth of school food change is due in large part to the energy and determination of Ann Cooper, a very ‘unique’ Food Service Director. Ann does not tread lightly, and had the advantage of financial support from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation and backing from the BUSD Sup’t Michele Lawrence. The relationship between Ann and Alice has soured some, but both remain committed to the basic goal of improving school food. Michele Lawrence frequently organized school and community meetings to tout the goals of SLI. [Note: Michele Lawrence recently announced her retirement from BUSD]

    Other elements of SLI, specifically establishing the curriculum linkages between food and academic content areas, have been uneven. Some schools, such as Muir Elementary, have done a stellar job in connecting food, gardens, and academics. Evaluation studies are primarily qualitative, but there is no denying the improvement in the quality of school food and school food service operations. Again, local financial support clearly made a difference here.

    As far as I know, there is no CSHC equivalent operating in Berkeley. Other health/wellness programs (phys, ed., mental health, etc) are not getting the same care and attention as is school food. This is an area where the Oakland CSHC has a stronger operational foundation and clearer appreciation and understanding of the importance of addressing other critical health/wellness issues.

    -Scott Burg

    If you are interested in joining the Coordinated School Health Council or any of its working groups, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly — I can direct you to the appropriate person and/or help you get subscribed to one of our email group listservs.

    Thanks for your interest and I do hope you’ll join us!

    Christopher Waters

  • Katy Murphy

    Thanks for all of the information. I’m writing a story about school food today, which should run over the weekend or Monday.

  • Caroline

    Katy, I hope you know that SFUSD has been a national leader with its “no empty calories” policy, and by getting junk food out of our schools back when that was viewed as economically disastrous. For complete info, go to http://www.sfusdfood.org . The chair of SFUSD’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, a parent volunteer, is the leader and reigning expert on this issue. Her contact info is listed on that website.

    Regarding school meals, in SFUSD, the absolute fixed costs vs. the amount of federal reimbursement allow about $1 for the actual food, and a good part of that must go for the mandatory milk. (This is notable in a district that’s almost-majority Asian — the vast majority of Asians are lactose-intolerant.) I challenge anyone to provide a fresh, healthy and delicious meal — no matter what the economies of scale — for $1.

    But the good news is that our community is already stepping up, and I think that will expand. City funding is currently paying for the installation of salad bars in 25 schools, and we food activists think that city officials are receptive to increasing the support. It just was never, anywhere, on their radar until we started putting it there.

  • Skyline Teacher

    Caroline: That is awesome about the salad bars. Ignore my pessimism.

  • Caroline

    I hope Oakland will come through like that too sometime, Skyline Teacher (though it sounds like the city of Oakland is less financially sound than S.F., I’m sorry to say).

    And also, Doowhopper, it’s sad but true that kids will make really bad choices. That’s one reason we worked hard to get junk food out of SFUSD schools early on.

  • peter

    Here at westlake (and at a number of other middle schools) we have a salad bar as well…. and the kids eat the salad! It’s especially cool as they “hired” student helpers to maintain the salad bars and gave them some health education.
    I also know that there have been some major moves towards a more healthy lunch in Hayward, although I do not work there.