June 22, 2009

The Lunch Lady Steps Up
Over at Civil Eats, Katrina Heron has a quick profile of Ann Cooper, the chef who remade the Berkeley, California school lunch program. Cooper is now trying to replicate her success in Boulder, CO where, at 30,000 students, the district is three times the size of Berkeley's. Why is this important? Look what she has already done in Berkeley.
Cooper earned national acclaim for remaking Berkeley's meals program top to bottom in three years' time. Out: transfats, high-fructose corn syrup, anything processed and pre-packaged, frozen vegetables, syrupy canned fruit, Wonder bread, vending machine snacks. In: fresh whole fruits and vegetables (many from local organic farms), salad bars with seasonal produce, organic milk, whole grains, fresh-baked breads, composting, recycling -- and breakfast.
And according to Cooper, at least in elementary school (where kids can't go off-campus) participation rates are up, which means kids are actually eating the healthier school food.

Wait, what? Better food produced IN the school kitchen? And still the kids eat it? Isn't that all supposed to be impossible? Cooper seems to have done it in Berkeley. A profile of her that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor last year has some more details:
When she began working as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) in the fall of 2005, about 95 percent of the cafeteria food was processed. Today, 95 percent is made from scratch. BUSD encompasses 16 schools and about 9,000 students, roughly 4,500 of whom buy lunch at school each day.
Of course, she has one ace-in-the-hole -- Alice Waters. Waters' foundation pays $3.50 per meal to subsidize Berkeley's lunches. But that money is essentially covering something that the federal government won't -- food preparation. Right now, federal subsidies are for the food only -- which is why so much processed food and "fast food" like pizza, burgers and fries dominate school menus. There's no money for kitchen equipment or prep time.

So if we want to see Cooper's school lunch policies succeed nationally, we need to look at changing that funding formula. And Cooper herself doesn't think it will take a monster increase in the federal subsidy per lunch. In the CSM article, Cooper suggests an increase of a $1 per lunch. While that would represent a big jump from the current $2.42, it's not into the stratosphere. We can't move the school lunch program from an agricultural commodities dumping ground to a real nutrition program without facing that particular music.

The CSM piece also has some great stories about kids' willingness to try different (i.e. healthier) foods once Cooper got them into the kitchen or the garden. In one case, fifth graders' objections to Cooper's grilled cheese sandwiches evaporated once she brought them in for a "tasting" of different breads and cheese. And the enthusiasm for the salad bar among middle- and high- school students who have been involved in the Berkeley Edible Schoolyards program is palpable. Success, it appears, means making food a true part of the curriculum.

And as for Boulder, Cooper shows how much can (and must) be done before serving a single lunch. According to Heron:
A lot of her work will involve breaking the district's dependence on the conventional school-food procurement system, which is administered by the USDA via the National School Lunch Program. Even before unpacking her boxes, Cooper has cut loose Boulder Valley School District's four food purveyors and selected 20 new ones to take their place, many of these local producers. "There was one chicken farmer from the western slope who approached me," she says. "But I told him, give me a year before we think about that." Right now, she's focused on debuting a nutritious fall-term menu, encouraging school staff, parents and kids on a new learning curve, and laying plans for a healthy-food purchasing system that's locally attuned and economically viable.
All of which is to say that there are successes out there -- we know what reform looks like and that it can work. As Congress kicks off the reauthorization of the national school lunch program, we can only hope that Cooper's work will be front and center. The question is whether they will be serious enough about reform to embrace it.

Photo of a Berkeley school salad bar from the Berkeley School District website

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