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By Jennifer Bogo
For many students, the cafeteria bell produces visions of long lines,
hair nets and perfectly molded, ice cream scoop servings of starchy,
lackluster food. But as the nation renews a focus on nutrition,
several inspired school districts are dismissing this grade school
nightmare with higher ideals for the standard school lunch.
In its quest to nurture both young minds and bodies, the Berkeley
Unified School District passed in 1999 a food program policy designed
to provide a healthy meal to each of its 10,000 students - a meal in
which the nutritional content far outweighs the chemical. Integral to
this 12-point plan is the phase-out of bovine growth hormones and
genetically engineered ingredients, and the incorporation of locally
grown, organic foods.
A San Francisco Bay area grower delivers organic apple juice weekly,
and a distributor provides organic processed foods like tortilla
chips, peanut butter and graham crackers. Organic gardens, including
one at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School spearheaded by renowned
chef Alice Waters, help introduce students to the principles of
organic farming, and give them a hands-on role in bringing some of the
food to the table. More than a dozen local farmers provide the rest
of the vegetables and 40 cases of fruits the schools go through each
week for breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks.
After all, "an explicit goal of the program is to not only benefit
children, but organic and local farmers," says Eric Weaver, chair of
Berkeley's Child Nutrition Advisory Committee. The district has spent
about $90,000 on organic foods in the last year. Weekly visits to
farmers markets, for instance, fill up the salad bars, which are
opening at each of the 15 Berkeley schools.
"There is a certain responsibility in an educational environment to
provide students with a healthy lunch - choices based largely on the
food pyramid, with whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, says
Laurel Lyle, the manager of the cafeteria at the Peabody Charter
School in Santa Barbara, California, which began incorporating an
ethic similar to Berkeley's several years earlier. "There's also a
responsibility for kids to see that cooking fresh food is not a
revolutionary or miraculous event," she adds. "It's really very
Lyle incorporates such organic ingredients as flour for freshly baked
breads and beans for stew to carrot sticks in each meal at Peabody.
As a result, kids and teachers alike who were once brown bagging it
are now setting down trays tat the lunch table. Food waste is vastly
reduced as well says Lyle. "Because most of the things I make are
fresh and separate, anything not eaten is used the next day in
something else. Other schools may throw out 100 servings of food a
day. Talk about an environmental nightmare."
The real nightmare, according to Susan Campbell of nonprofit Spirit in
Action, lies in the vending machines that still provide powerful
temptation. "Kids already know that they're supposed to eat more
fruits and vegetables," says Campbell. "But if they're still guzzling
Coca-Cola and eating Snickers, it's defeating the purpose. The
chemicals they're eating are the real culprits."
Kids eat too much junk food, says Campbell, and most schools sell it
inside their walls. As turning back this tide of sugar-laden candy
and soda is not likely, Spirit in Action has invited manufacturers of
natural and organic snack foods to go head-to-head with conventional
a-la-carte items. A pilot project with high schools in California and
Colorado will be launched this spring, offering kids looking for foods
on the run a healthier alternative. Full-service kiosks will follow
in the fall of 2001.
"Good nutrition impacts thinking skills," says Sandy Neumann, program
officer for education at the Center for Ecoliteracy, a public
foundation that works with the Berkeley School District. "We talk
about accountability, but kids are trying to be accountable when they
don't have the physical resources to call upon within their own
Although the solution - offering fresh, local, unadulterated foods -
seems logical, the barriers to reach it are many. For one, "kids are
very finicky," says Elsie Szeto, director of child nutrition services
at Berkeley, and a registered dietician. "They need to be familiar
with a food, or they won't touch it. It needs a shape or form they
know." Secondly, "the food service is self-supporting," says Szeto,
"and we only have so much money to work with."
Nine of the Berkeley schools were recently given funding to provide
after-school snacks, for example. But of the 54 cents designated per
student, 14 goes to overhead, leaving only 30 cents to cover the costs
of food, which must be selected from two of three food groups.
Although last year the snacks were entirely organic, this year
conventional cheese was the only affordable choice.
Covering the cost of free and reduced meals poses another challenge.
If passed, a bill now in the California State Senate would provide
increased meal reimbursement for any school in the state that
purchases fresh food. Related legislation has pooped up elsewhere. A
recent resolution passed by the city of Minneapolis urges the
Minneapolis School District to consider organic foods for its lunch
program; a resolution now pending in the city of San Francisco
originally included such sentiment, but was eventually watered down.
"As consciousness continues to rise about globalization and lost
autonomy in our lives, we'll see more resolutions in which people say
they can't depend on our government to protect the food supply," says
Simon Harris of San Francisco's' Organic Consumers Alliance. "And
that our school districts and local governments should."
Berkeley's program sets an important precedent, believes Harris.
"School boards are looking for replicable models," he says, "a
specific list of actions, something substantive that can be taken to
other school districts. Once they can say, 'Look, this works,' it
will be replicated on a larger scale."
This ripple effect is already occurring within Berkeley itself. Seed
money from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant has cascaded into
two successful bond measures and nearly $1.5 million in additional
grants. The bonds earmark money to install and staff kitchens at each
of the schools, enabling on-site preparation of meals now restricted
to mainly frozen, pre-packaged ordeals. The grants will support
nutrition education for faculty and school officials, provide garden
coordinators and cooking program specialists, fund field trips to
local farms and develop a business plan to ensure the program's fiscal
CONTACT: Center for Ecoliteracy, (510)845-4595, www.ecoliteracy.org;
Spirit in Action, www.spiritinaction.org