The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Berkeley Schools Cook Food from Scratch: Epilogue

May 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Posted in Berkeley, kids, school food

Me, in hair net, weighing pasta

Me, in hair net, weighing pasta

After discovering earlier this year that the “fresh cooked” meals being served in D.C. schools were actually industrially-processed convenience food, I went looking for a school district that was really making food from scratch. I turned to Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady” famous for advocating healthy school food made with fresh ingredients.

Cooper this past year has been busy switching schools in Boulder, CO, to the fresh-cooked scheme. I suggested I spend a week there with her. But she demurred. Boulder was still in transition, she said. If I wanted to witness a “mature” program, I should book a flight to Berkeley. Cooper put me in touch with Marni Posey, the food services director for the Berkeley Unified School District, and eventually we settled on a date when I could spend a week in the central kitchen there.

All I needed was a place to stay.

Being an independent journalist, there was no budget for a hotel room. I took a flyer and contacted Bonnie Powell, fellow food blogger and founder of the Ethicurean blog, who lives in Oakland, just a few miles from my ultimate destination. Powell said she would put me up herself, but she was soon to give birth to her first child, a girl. Instead, she hooked me up with a sympatico couple in Berkeley–Fred Dodsworth, an itinerant journalist himself, and his wife Linda Franklin, a director in the local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Like me, they also are dedicated food gardeners, but with nine chickens in their back yard. I had fresh eggs almost every morning for breakfast. Like me, they live in a house that is undergoing endless renovation. “It will never be finished,” said Fred. They gave me a wonderful bedroom in which I could have lodged my entire family. Turns out Fred and Linda are quite used to playing Samaritan for folks needing a place to bunk down.

I arrived at San Francisco International airport on a Saturday evening and after a brief moment of panic trying to decipher the local subway system I boarded a one-hour BART train to Berkeley. I had planned on a 15-minute walk to Fred and Linda’s house from the downtown Berkeley subway station, but got out at Berkeley North by mistake. Completely disoriented, I called Fred for a rescue. Ten minutes later an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser, sans roof and with doors that seemed to be held closed by the slimmest of threads, came barreling up to the subway exit. “Get in,” shouted a guy who looked like he’d been sent from Central Casting, sitting behind the wheel with his grey beard and baseball cap. That was Fred.

Fred's Land Cruiser

Fred's Land Cruiser

The next day I was up at the crack of dawn and eager to familiarize myself with the route I’d be taking early Monday morning to the central kitchen. Fred and Linda could not have been more conveniently located, just around the corner from Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous restaurant, and a mere 10-minute walk to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School where I’d be spending the next week.

Seedlings in the Edible Schoolyard

Seedlings in the Edible Schoolyard

When I arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School shortly after daybreak on Sunday, I had the Edible Schoolyard all to myself. I was suprised to find the gates open, inviting me inside. It struck me that the garden’s reputation is much, much bigger than the garden itself. I took a leisurely walk around the grounds, admiring the swelling artichokes, the rows of leafy lettuce, the kiwi vining its way around a central arbor. The garden was preparing for a big plant sale. There were hundreds of tomato and herb seedlings covering tables near a small greenhouse. A flock of chickens clucked softly in their pen.

I then located the “dining commons” where the kitchen was located. Of course it was completely deserted. The only thing I could do was peer through the windows.

Kitchen supervisor Cecilia Adams

Kitchen supervisor Cecilia Adams

I had told Marni Posi that I had some experience working in a commercial kitchen, so she shouldn’t be afraid to put me to work. I guess that’s how I became the new “intern” in the central kitchen. And put me to work they did. They were glad to have me. I arrived for work at 5:30 sharp Monday morning. Seven of the district’s food service workers had failed to show that day. Posey was in a mad scramble to get all hands on deck.

Sous chef Joan Gallagher put me in the “meat room” where my introduction to cooking school food from scratch was sorting 1,400 pounds of raw chicken parts. That chicken, and the eight days it spent moving through the kitchen towards a lunch date with Berkeley’s school population, became a metaphor for this series of stories, an example of how much work and attention goes into school meals cooked from fresh ingredients, as opposed to the chicken tenders that come from a factory pre-cooked and frozen, requiring only a few minutes to reheat. As Ann Cooper later pointed out, chicken doesn’t have to take that long to prepare. But that’s how the kitchen schedule works out. It’s a process.

After my stint in the meat room, I would report to supervisor Cecilia Adams for my assignments. Like everyone else, she was extremely gracious and welcoming, and no doubt curious why I would travel 3,000 miles to be there. She showed me how to weigh pasta in stainless “hotel pans,” wrap and label them for delivery; how to count bags of corn chips for chilaquiles, and bag them for the district’s other 15 schools; how to pack the breakfast bins the kids pick up every morning to carry back to their classrooms.

Liz, prepping mozzarella cheese for pasta

Liz, prepping mozzarella cheese for pasta

I got to know most of the 15 workers in the central kitchen by name. I first saw Liz preparing mozzarella cheese for pizza. Liz also was in charge of roasting the chicken.  Besides the standard convection ovens, there’s a  “combi” steam and heat roaster that helps keep chicken breasts moist. I stopped by at one point to watch Liz checking the temperature of some chicken thighs roasting. The convection ovens have fans to move the heat around and they make quite a noise. I couldn’t help admiring the mahagony color the thighs had acquired. “It’s hard to get that kind of color at home,” Liz agreed.

At lunch, Liz was the one who scurried around behind the serving stations, making sure there was always backup pizza or beans or tacos in the warming cabinets.

Kelly, prepping onions

Kelly, prepping onions

Kelly seemed to spend a lot of her time chopping vegetables, especially onions. It’s hard to make any kind of good food without onions. Kelly addressed the tearing-up issue with onions by wearing a pair of safety goggles.

Roxanne making pasta

Roxanne making pasta

Wednesday is pasta day at the “dining commons.” That means somebody has to turn 200 pounds of dry, government commodity pasta into 1,000 pounds of cooked pasta. Roxanne was at it one day. For all its gleaming equipment, the central kitchen wasn’t designed to make this much pasta. The improvised method consists of cooking some inside a big stainless basket suspended in boiling water in the kitchen’s kettle cooker.

Pasta cooking in colanders

Pasta cooking in colanders

More pasta cooks in three colanders placed inside a “tilt skillet,” a big griddle with tall sides that’s used for just about every kind of cooking, such as the scrambled eggs for chilaquiles. Christensen said the kids never know that the noddles in their “mac & cheese” are actually whole-wheat rotini.

Apples and breakfast bins

Apples and breakfast bins

Our early start to the day gave us plenty of time to load breakfast bins. As I described in the series, breakfast in Berkeley schools is extremely simple consisting of bare essentials only, such as small packets of cereal, a carton of plain milk, a piece of fruit. But because of California’s “Meals for Needy” program, breakfast plays a crucial role in funding lunch. I also got a kick out of the kid-size apples the school district uses. Breakfast is taken only in the classroom, except at the high school. The bins are customized according to the number of students in each class.

When I got back to D.C. and told people about the Berkeley breakfast, the reaction was much like mine: What, no hot breakfast? Ann Cooper had an answer for that: “How many kids have hot breakfasts every day at home? Do you get up at five in the morning to make your kid hot breakfast? America eats cereal for breakfast at home.”

Dana Woldow, a longtime chair of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, wanted to make sure I pointed out that not all school districts in California receive the “Meals for Needy” money that does so much to help breakfast participation in Berkeley schools fund the made-from-scratch lunch.

“Meals for Needy” eligibility is based on certain types of property tax laws that simply are not in place in every jurisdiction.  And even if other jurisdictions wanted to copy Berkeley, Woldow said, they would be prevented from doing so by California’s famous Proposition 13, which put a clamp on new taxes. I still don’t understand completely how it works, but it was interesting enough for a friend of Woldow’s to write her doctoral thesis around the subject, so I’m passing that along for readers to ponder.

Making kiddie meals

Making kiddie meals

One of my favorite jobs was working with Mei, a Chinese immigrant woman, packing small meals for the kids in the school district’s day care centers. These packaged meals are the kind of thing D.C. students used to get routinely, made in a factory in the Maryland suburbs, before the schools instituted the infamous “fresh-cooked” system of re-heating frozen convenience foods on site.

In Berkeley, the food for the day care centers is mostly the same as for the bigger kids, but in smaller portions. Working on the AmeriPak machine, which seals the meal packages with plastic, reminded me of the chocolate factory skit from I Love Lucy. I did have a panic button, though, to stop the machine if needed.

One picture I did not get was of me interviewing Eric Weaver, one of the activist parents who helped instigate the change to fresh school food in Berkeley, from my cell phone in the parking lot outside the kitchen. As magnificently designed as the “dining commons” is, I couldn’t get any cell phone reception inside. I used some plastic milk crates to make myself a desk and chair al fresco where I could get a signal. It wasn’t easy taking notes while holding the cell phone to my ear.

Also, it wasn’t easy taking notes while working, or trying to interview other workers while they were busy with their kitchen chores. When I felt the need to talk, I would retire to the administrative office where executive chef Bonnie Christensen often hung out. We had some long conversations there.

On my last day, a Friday, I entered the office to sounds of loud gasps, and cries of “Oh, no!” I thought maybe someone had died. It turned out Christensen was merely exclaiming over some of the latest labor union news. I didn’t include this in the series because I didn’t think it was germaine. But at this time, certain employees were getting termination notices. Or at least their jobs were being terminated. Under  union rules, those employees can “bump” others who have less seniority, meaning they take someone else’s job.

Christensen had just received news that a particular employee with whom she was not on good terms at all was planning to “bump” one of the favorite workers in the food services department. Other notices had gone out, creating a cascade of bumping events and lots of drama.

“The only way to do the kind of work we do is to build a team,” Christensen said. “And the way the unions are structured, you can’t build a team.”

Joan Gallagher, who was sitting at her desk listening to all this, was doing a slow burn. Finally she blurted out: “This is not worth it! This is so not worth it! I don’t even make as much as a janitor!”

Later, when the air had cleared a little, I asked her if that were true–that she didn’t make as much as a janitor. She said, “Let’s put it this way: I don’t make half as much as I did 11 years ago.”

Oh, well. Just another day at the office.

But rather than end on that note, I’ve got student comments from some of the “What’s on Your Plate” tasting sessions that the chefs conduct at the middle school. These are sessions where the chefs go to the classrooms to explain what the cafeteria is serving and perhaps persuade the kids to try new things.

About the Cuban chicken:

“I thought it was perfect.  The balance between citrus and spicy was divine and played on my taste buds.  I would appreciate if you sent the recipe to : (e-mail address)  I will deffinetly eat this when I can.  Best of Luck.”

“OMG, that was so GOOD!!!!! Or the rice was.  I didn’t eat the chicken, but I’m sure it was scrumptious.  We really appreciate it.  PS seriously though, on the last week of school can we have chocolate.”  (and there is a picture of a chocolate bar)

“Since I’m a vegetarian I only had the rice.  That was real good and everybody who wasn’t vegetarian said it was wonderful.  PS could you try making cheese puffs.”

“Just like the last dish it was delicious.  It was spicy, sweet, and tangy.  The sauce was really good with the rice and it made an excellent
combination.  I really lkied this dish and I hope there are going to be more.”

“I actually didn’t like the chicken, but the rice was pretty good.  I didn’t like the chikcen because I don’t like spices and also my family
used as spice only black pepper because I am and my family is from Russia and spices don’t grow in Russia, so it’s not an origin part of food.  I heard that many people liked it.  Thank you.”

“I loved the rice it was mushy.  I will eat it next time I see rice.  The chicken was tangy and citrusy.  It wasn’t too bad the only thing is that I don’t like food with a lot of spices!  Hope yu keep on making healthy food!!!  But I heard really good other great commants.  Thank you!”

“I thought the Cuban Chicken and brown rice was ok.  It was not my favorite.  I reallty don’t like chicken with lots of fat on it.  I’d like
it better if it was spicyer and the chicken was less chewy.  I don’t think I will eat it on Friday.  I think I’ll have pesto pizza!!!” 

About curried chicken:

“The curry was a bit too sweet. ( we make it with coconut milk).  I don’t think I like it, but when I eat it I just keep eating.  That was really

“I loved your kindness for offering us it.  🙂  Although I didn’t care much for the taste.  I’m sorry.  Needs to be spicey” 

About tandoori chicken:

“I really liked it! 🙂  At first I was kinda on the fence about it, but it turned out really great.  It tased very flavorful and I could taste all
the spices.  It had kinda tangy taste to it and it was savory too.”

“I liked this.  At first, I thought this was gonna be bad.  But then, I LOVED IT.  🙂  As a weirdo with brown hair that always says “pie” and wears a hood once said, “AWESOME”.

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  • fdodsworth

    Ed, it was real pleasure sharing this experience with you. I hope your work encourages other school districts to move to a healthier lunch standard. As Wendell Berry says (via Bonnie): “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.” Our children deserve better as do our small, local farmers. The future is in our hands, let’s make a difference.

  • GigiC

    I live in Boulder where Ann Cooper is revamping our school lunches. Thanks for sharing the wonderful success story in Berkeley. I just had to vent my frustration over Ann’s comment about cereal for breakfast. There is just not enough protein and fat in this breakfast to help our kids start the day with balanced blood sugar. I have two great sources of protein that I rely upon in our morning routine – eggs and a preservative free, 5 ingredient breakfast sausages (available at Whole Foods). Both can be made quickly on the stove top without getting up at 5:30 in the morning 🙂