The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Berkeley Schools Cook from Scratch: Hold the Beans, Please

May 14th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Posted in Berkeley, kids, school food

Preparing stir fry in the Edible Schoolyard kitchen

Preparing stir fry in the Edible Schoolyard kitchen

After spending hours sorting chicken pieces my first day on the job in the Berkeley school system’s central kitchen, I got a break. “How would you like to serve the kids at lunch?” asked Joan Gallagher, the sous chef in charge of kitchen production. “It’s the most exciting part of the day. You’ll get to interact with the kids.”

I would soon learn that interactions with middle-schoolers over lunch food can test your nerves.

My assignment was to scoop beans at one of two pizza stations in the “dining commons” at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. About 1,000 kids attend the school. They descend on the “commons” in three waves, beginning at 11:25 am. First they check in at one of two cashiers, where they punch a personalized, four-digit numbers on a small keypad that identifies them as either a free, reduced-price or pay-in-full customer. They get a ticket they are supposed to deposit in a plastic bucket when they pick up their food. And they grab a tray, a re-usable plastic dinner plate and silverware.

There are four food stations in all. In middle school, kids get a choice of two entrees; elementary school kids get only one. The other choice on Mondays is tacos with beans and rice.

The pizza produced in the central kitchen is quite good. In addition to canned tomatoes, the marinara sauce for the red pizza is loaded with vegetables: 125 pounds of celery, carrot, onion and garlic, to be precise, all cooked in a giant kettle. The sausage pizza is made with homemade turkey sausage. And a third variety–my favorite–is lathered with pesto.

In the district’s elementary schools, the pizza is made on rectangular baking sheets using a whole-wheat crust from a local bakery, FullBloom. Middle schoolers get something quite different: a round pizza that’s also made with a whole wheat crust but from an institutional supplier, Sysco. The reason? “By the time they get to middle school, kids are already very brand or package conscious,” said executive chef Bonnie Christensen. “They want a round pizza.”

They had their ideas about beans, too, even the gorgeous, plump cannellini beans in a Tuscan-style salad that I was serving with an ice cream scoop to go with the pizza. Basically, they didn’t want the beans.

“No beans!” I heard as a plate was thrust in our direction, demanding a slice of pizza. “No beans!” “No beans!”

Government regulations require that a certain quantity of vegetables or fruits be offered with school meals, along with meat, or meat alternate, and grains. The emphasis is on the word “offered,” because the kids can take what they want, as long as they take three of the items provided. If they don’t, what they do take doesn’t qualify as a “meal” and won’t be credited for purposes of the federal subsidies the school receives to pay for the food.

So how hard should I push the beans, which count as a vegetable? There was also a big bowl of oranges and apples at our station. The kids could take one of those. Or they could serve themselves a salad at the salad bar a few yards away. In most schools, the kids fill their plates in the food line before they get to the cashier. The unusual arrangement in Berkeley’s “dining commons” is deliberately more open and less institutional, suggesting an actual dining experience rather than a cattle call. But it does inject a bit of uncertainty. How were we supposed to kow what the kids did after they left our station if all they had on their plate was a slice of pizza and no beans?

Next to me was one of the regular servers, Joyce, who was handing out the pizza. She urged me not to push the beans too hard. “We want to be friends with the older kids,” she whispered. When I described to Christensen the uncertainty I was experiencing–the sense I got from Joyce that maybe I shouldn’t antagonize the kids by making them take beans they didn’t want–the executive chef didn’t flinch. “I antagonize them,” she said jokingly.

By the end of the week, I had a pat answer for kids who said they didn’t want the beans: “The federal government says you must have beans,” I’d say after grabbing their plate and dropping a scoop of Tuscan bean salad on it. Quickly followed by: “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.”

The kids looked at me like I’d landed from Mars. I could see how this would get old fast.

In fact, a quick tour around the dining hall told me the kids weren’t eating many beans. Mostly they scraped the beans into a compost receptacle at the end of the meal. On Wednesday–pasta day in Berkeley schools–I would confront this issue again when I was asked to man a station serving two kinds of lo mein. One was made with diced chicken and a mix of diced carrots, peas and corn. A second vegetarian option had tofu with roasted broccoli and cauliflower.

The “lo mein” was really spaghetti noddles tossed with the other ingredients and a light, Asian sauce. The vegetables in the chicken version in particular just wanted to sink to the bottom of the pan and disappear under the noodles. Kids who opted for the chicken lo mein frequently would add, “no vegetables” to their request and I would give them vegetables anyway. That seemed to irritate them. I would get an icy stare.  But one girl in particular got angry. I guess I miss-heard her, because I thought she said she wanted the vegetables. I did my best to find some with my spring-loaded tongs and lift them onto her plate. Finally she stomped her foot and sneered, “I said no vegetables!”


Lo mein: kids would rather skip the veggies

Lo mein: kids would rather skip the veggies

I was getting the impression that kids in Berkeley weren’t really much different from kids everywhere. In most cafeterias I’ve visited (I sit in on meals at my daughter’s school almost every day), kids generally reject vegetables.

In District of Columbia schools, as in most places, these are canned green beans or steamed carrots or broccoli steamed until it disintegrates. The serving trays dressed with these limp vegetable side dishes look like a clumsy attempt to comply with federal regulations, no more. The kids typically don’t touch the vegetables and just throw them in the trash. In fact, the drafters of “Healthy Schools” legislation in D.C. had planned to adopt newly proposed school meal standards from the Instiute of Medicine that call for increased portions of vegetables. But local school officials begged them not to, saying there was no way the schools could prepare additonal vegetables kids would actually eat. It would just be money down the drain.

Until five years ago, meals in Berkeley schools were served much the same way. Vegetables were canned or frozen. Fruit came in a can with sugary syrup. But you won’t see vegetables served as “sides” in Berkeley these days. There are no steamed carrots. “Kids don’t like carrots,” Gallagher said. And no steamed broccoli. “Steaming removes the nutrients from vegetables,” said Christensen. Instead, broccoli and other vegetables are more often roasted. Not only does  roasting not leach out nutrients, it enhances the color and flavor of vegetables. “Roasting vegetables definitely is the way to go,” said Christensen.

That may just sum up the difference between a kitchen run by professional chefs, and the majority of school kitchens that cook out of freezers.

Berkeley schools are now equipped with salad bars where kids can help themselves. The week I was there, the salad bar in the dining commons offered romaine lettuce and three styles of dressing, white beans, cottage cheese, chopped hard-boiled eggs, raw jicama slices, sliced radishes, pickled jalepeno slices, roasted potato wedges, sliced carrots, chickpeas, raw cauliflower and broccoli, humus and corn.

According to a 2008 report published by the Chez Panisse Foundation, lunch participation among students who qualify for either free or reduced-price meals increased to more than 50 percent at one Berkeley middle school after a salad bar was installed. The school district employs special part-time workers to maintain the salad bars. During my week in the central kitchen, I did not see kids exactly attacking the salad bar. I asked Christensen if it was safe to say that kids just don’t like to eat vegetables. Why go to all the trouble to source and prepare fresh vegetables if children are just going to turn up their nose at them?

Christensen stood firm. “Are they eating white beans? No,” she said. “But they know what blood oranges are. It’s an incremental process and I’ll take incremental progress.”

Christensen said it’s also true that middle school students “do not tend to go to the salad bar,” but “they do in the elementary schools” where they get “a lot more encouragement and guidance….”

As far as eating other vegetables, “You can’t force feed them. All we can do is expose them and only give them good choices.” She said kids might not eat the vegetables now, “but if they feel what it’s like to be nourished, later when they’re on their own and spending their own money, they’ll make different choices. We’re trying to teach them what it’s like to eat healthy food. We’re not going to see results overnight.”

In fact, Christensen said she can’t afford to spend money and labor on food that won’t be eaten. “The quality of the ingredients is so much better than it used to be, and they’re perishable, so they cost more.”

Fresh vegetables are “regionally sourced” and organic “to the maximum extent possible.” (See accompanying article on how Berkeley sources its food.)

Rather than being served as separate side dishes the students might reject, vegetabales are incorporated into school meals in other ways, such as the lo mein or the 125 pounds of onions, carrots, celery and garlic that go into the marinara sauce the kitchen makes in its big kettle cooker. “I make things like tabouleh, white beans with braised collard greens, vegetable stir fry, vegetables in the chicken cacciatore, in the garlic-bacon pasta,” Christensen said. “There is a ton of vegetables in the meat loaf and the shepherd’s pie, and we make stir-fried rice with lots of vegetables.”

There are also vegetables in the soup, offered daily.

The chefs visit classes on Thursdays for something called “What’s on Your Plate,” where they talk to students about the food that’s being served. Sous chef Joan Gallagher said the students might not accept some foods at all without these sessions. Tandoori chicken, made from a recipe handed down by Christensen’s mother, is one example. It’s roasted after being coated with a yogurt marinade. The finished chicken has a rustic–some might say gnarly–appearance that can put kids off. “The kids had been off the tandoori,” said Gallagher. “They wouldn’t go near it.”

In “What’s on Your Plate,” the students get to taste the food and offer comments. “They write their comments on individual pieces of paper and the teachers send them back to us. I love these!” said Christensen. “You would be impressed with what the
children have to say when prompted for a thoughtful response.”

On some issues, however, the kids won’t budge. They drew the line with nachos.

“It was served every couple of days,” Cooper said. “Chips in a boat with that big cheese stuff poured over the top and jalapenos. I looked at it and took it off the menu. The kids went on strike. They said they weren’t going to eat there. The kids stopped coming in for lunch.” Since then, nachos are served every Friday, they’re just different nachos: no more gobs of melted cheese–meat, beans rice and grated cheese instead. “Nobody wants to fight that battle,” Gallagher said. “It’s Friday.”

Lessons from the Edible Schoolyard

Lessons from the Edible Schoolyard

Across the playground and up the hill from the dining commons is the Edible Schoolyard founded by Alice Waters where students rotate in and out of 1 1/2-hour classes over the course of the year, working in the garden and taking cooking lessons in the garden’s kitchen. The idea is to familiarize children with where food comes from, to teach the importance of a healthful diet and a respectful approach toward eating.

I sat in on one of the cooking classes where middle-schoolers made their own tofu-vegetable stir fry. The kitchen is remarkably well-equipped, with three long tables set at an ideal height for chopping, three stations with sinks and electric burners, individual cuttting boards and knives for all the students, vegetable peelers, zesters, a free-standing convection oven turning out an impeccable strawberry gallette, and at the other end of the room, a commercial-grade dish washing area.

Just like in my own cooking classes at a private elementary school here in D.C., these kids had a ball. They ernestly chopped vegetables and couldn’t wait for a turn cooking in woks. When the cooking was done, they cleared the tables and spread checkered tablecloths, set plates, silverware, glasses. Alice Waters would have been proud.

The Dr. Robert C. & Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, has been monitoring elementary school children in Berkeley to see if gardening and food lessons increase their appetite for fruits and vegetables, both at home and at school. University students venture into the field, photograph kids’ plates in cafeterias, complete questionnaires, cull information from food diaries. The results so far: kids who get the extra exposure to gardens and food preparation tend to be more receptive to eating produce–but not by much.

According to that research, kids are more likely to say they like vegetables “a little” than “a lot.” Those who garden give higher marks to these: asparagus, squash, carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

Updated results from this ongoing study are expected to be released later this month.

After spending a week in Alice Waters’ back yard, I wondered what she thought about the food her movement has inspired in the Berkeley schools. Had she ever visited the dining commons?

I sent my questions to an aide at the Chez Panisse Foundation. Waters, the aide replied in an e-mail, “is interested in a complete re-imagination of a school lunch program, one that–among other things–could help educate the students with dishes that teach them about different cultures and ingredients. Of course she is certainly thrilled that real and fresh ingredients have replaced processed foods–this is a major piece of the puzzle–but she is hoping to take that even further by evolving menus.”

Waters has eaten in the dining commons “on a number of occasions,” the aide said. I wonder if she tried the beans.

Next: Epilogue.

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  • jeffw

    Great real-world reporting – cuts right to the chase about what works and what doesn’t!
    I wonder if the beans problem is related to methane production and fear of embarrassment –
    otherwise, why do they have such a bad rep?

    I hope DC Public Schools can learn from this and push the envelope!

  • Sheila Crye

    Gaseous byproducts of vegetable metabolism are a problem to many, young and old. Is there a cure? If you eat mostly vegetables, does your body eventually learn how to digest them efficiently? Is Beano a viable solution?