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