The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Lessons from Berkeley: The Truth About Vegetables

May 17th, 2010 · 15 Comments · Posted in Berkeley, kids, school food

Kids have issues with vegetables

Kids have issues with vegetables

Might as well say it straight up: Kids don’t like vegetables.

At least most kids don’t like most vegetables most of the time. That’s the ultimate lesson I draw after spending weeks in school kitchens from Washington, D.C., to Berkeley, CA. And that certainly challenges the idea of produce as a magic elixir for the childhood obesity epidemic. Is the clamor for additional government standards requiring more vegetables in school meals really justified? Or even a good idea?

Truth to tell, I was relieved to see that students in Berkeley are just as indifferent to broccoli and carrots as kids everywhere else. There was a time I feared there might exist some kind of parallel universe where children actually enjoyed and willingly ate the vegetables adults put in front of them. Perhaps the vision of children embracing collards and acorn squash is merely a case of wishful adult thinking after all.

What I saw during my week in Berkeley’s central school kitchen was a pair of seasoned, professional chefs who knew what the deal was with kids and vegetables. Being chefs on a budget, they take a clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to making school meals. They weren’t just slapping peas on a tray to satisfy some standard dreamed up in Washington, D.C. With stoic determination, they were finding ways to incorporate vegatables that would actually be eaten in daily meals, often by making them much less obvious. They don’t waste time or money on broccoli side dishes. They serve lots of beans, which satisfy government vegetable requirements cheaply and efficiently–just in case that Tuscan bean salad ends up being scraped into the compost bin.

Why serve kids local brussels sprouts if they just end up in the trash? That was exactly the message D.C. school officials sent legislators here when they tried to adopt new Institute of Medicine standards calling for bigger portions of vegetables: Please don’t!

In the District of Columbia, canned green beans, steamed carrots and broccoli cooked to death appear on Styrofoam serving trays on a regular basis, only to be ignored by the children for whom they are intended and dropped into trash receptacles at the end of the meal. “They’re nasty,” is how my 10-year-old daughter and her classmates describe them. Isn’t the defininition of insanity repeating the same behavior over and over, expecting a different result?

The chefs in Berkeley are sneaky. They load 125 pounds of fresh onions, carrots and celery into every batch of marinara sauce they make for their pizza and pasta. Could the solution to our national angst over getting kids to eat more vegetables possibly be mirepoix? Or maybe what we need instead of more standards are some best practices that school kitchen managers can share.

If anything, what these weeks in school kitchens have taught me is that standards really don’t make a fig of difference. What really matters is what kids see on their plate every day. We know that schools can serve industrially-processed junk food full of starchy carbs and sugar that absolutely complies with federal standards. We know that kids, given a choice, will gladly eat that junk food. So how do schools make “healthy” affordable food kids will actually consume on the meager allowance the federal government gives them?

Berkeley succedes because the city itself has invested in a great kitchen and seasoned chefs to run it. They also get an enormous boost from the State of California and its “Meals for Needy” funding. How do you replicate something like Berkeley’s food service model across the country without a commitment to do so on the part of local comunities and a huge infusion of cash?

Because I also teach kids about food and cooking on a regular basis, I know that children will eat vegetables in controlled situations where they can handle and prepare the food themselves. That doesn’t mean they will eat every vegetable that comes down the pike. Sometimes they need to be exposed over and over again. Sometimes they will completely surprise me, as they did recently when they happily devoured an Ethiopian yellow split pea stew we made for our classes.

What was it that made that split pea stew, seasoned with ginger, garlic and curry spices, so appealing to grade-schoolers? Was it because we made it together and had so much fun in the process? Or was it because there were two teachers on hand, encouraging them? Would they have eaten that very same split pea stew had it been offered in the cafeteria? It’s still a mystery to me. They also were crazy for an Ethiopian potato stew loaded with finely copped cabbage and carrots. Just try getting the average kid to eat cooked cabbage or carrots.

Something seems to come over kids when they enter a cafeteria. Even the ones trained in gardening and cooking will skip right past the vegetables to get to the pizza.

I happen to like the idea of salad bars. That runs somewhat counter to my reporting on school cafeterias. I’ve seen some lovely salad bars in schools, and most kids walk right past them. But I still like them and think they are  worth pursuing. I’m told that in elementary schools, where children get more adult supervision and guidance around meal time, kids will eat from salad bars more enthusiastically. Properly done, I think salad bars are a great way to expose children to alternative approaches to vegetables and give them an opportunity to compose their own meals from a variety of food choices, including protein and dairy.

My proposal, made only partially in jest, would be a national program to put a salad bar in every school. Call it The National School Salad Bar Initiative. Not only would this give every child exposure to fresh vegetables in a pressure-free environment, it would create instant markets for local growers and provide jobs on a grand scale to retirees or others who are looking for part-time work. Berkeley employs spsecial kitchen workers who spend three hours each day maintaining the salad bars that are installed in all 16 of the district’s schools. They tend to be more elderly workers who don’t want to spend a lot of time on their feet. It’s a perfect trifecta.

Are you listening, President Obama? Salad bars are a perfect opportunity to make school food healthier, support local farmers and put Americans back to work in hard economic times. A National School Salad Bar Initiative  would also be a great way to support all the work your wife is doing fighting childhood obesity.

The clamor for more produce in school meals also obscures a far simpler path to making school food healthier: We could make school food healthier overnight by just getting rid of all the sugar served in the federally-subsidized meal program.

Parents in Berkeley understand this. That’s why you don’t see the sugary cereals, cookies, Pop-Tarts and flavored milk in school breakfasts there. It’s a remarkable contrast to morning meals in D.C. schools, where kids consume 50 or 60 grams of sugar (60 grams equals 15 teaspoons) first thing in the morning, and are offered strawberry-flavored milk–the near-equivalent of Mountain Dew–twice a day.

All schools need do is follow the lead of Berkeley and other school districts that understand that tons of sugar cannot be good for kids in the middle of an obesity epidemic. There is no reason to wait for the federal government to publish standards regulating the amount of sugar in school meals. In all likelihood, that won’t happen any time soon. The sugar lobby is strong: While there are volumes of standards regulating the fat content of school food, there are no such standards for sugar.

If anyone would like to start a campaign for rigorous sugar standards in the federal meals program, please have at it. I’ll be the first to support you.

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  • kathy voyles

    I think veggies can tempt children’s palates but they do need to be served in imaginative ways as appetite is fed from our eyes. I have been much inspired by Stephanie Alexander’s school gardens project
    I use edible flowers such as borage and rose petals to add to salads. Dips such as Skordalia, hummus, broad bean and glaric are also great for dipping fresh carrots, cucumber and pita breads into.
    Sugar is the enemy but very hard to avoid. Teaching kids to check the packet is the best thing and to avoid simple sugars. Low GI is best!

  • MissHealth

    I think the larger problem is this idea ingrained into our culture that kids do not like vegetables. It is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve watched a number of kids grow up loving vegetables in their early years because all of the adults around them eat vegetables and they aren’t exposed to any negativity surrounding them.

    It’s only after they are around other children who have already latched onto this notion that kids don’t like vegetables and after they start watching television where cartoons, commercials, and other television shows perpetuate the “kids don’t like vegetables” notion (if you watch kid’s programming, you’d be surprised at the number of times that either kid characters in shows or television commercials portray vegetables as yucky) that they are exposed to the much-accepted norm that kids don’t like vegetables – and so they decide that vegetables are yucky.

    I don’t think it has to be this way. If kids grow up on vegetables and the people around them are eating vegetables, and no one is telling them that they aren’t supposed to like vegetables – they’ll like them. Or most of them, at least. Everyone has a vegetable or two that they don’t exactly love. But I was taught as a child that vegetables are delicious and I grew up loving them – more than meat, in fact. And now I’m 21 and nothing has changed – I can’t get enough of them!

  • Christina @ Spoonfed

    I think MissHealth is exactly right. The problem isn’t that kids (or most kids) don’t like vegetables. It’s that they’ve been raised by adults who *think* kids don’t like vegetables and in a culture that paints vegetables as something to be endured instead of enjoyed.

    Now, that’s an entrenched problem that is going to take a long time to change, so in the meantime, whatever schools can do to encourage kids to eat vegetables is a good thing. I’m personally not a fan of hiding vegs, so I’d like to see schools pack the sauce with vegs, but then *tell* the kids that’s what they’ve done. “That tastes good, right? That’s because it has all those amazing carrots, zucchini and beans in it.”

    Ed, you’ve frequently addressed another problem with making vegs appetizing, and I think you’re so right: Cooked properly or served raw, vegs are a lot more appealing (to everyone, not just kids) than the overcooked mush that most schools offer.

    But we also need to acknowledge that parents and kids’ larger communities play a role. If a parent thinks a kid won’t eat vegs (or quinoa or avocado or whatever), well, what does that parent serve the child from birth? So-called “kid food,” always heavily processed and devoid of nutrients. So of course that’s what kids get used to. That’s why having teachers or other adults present and encouraging kids to try new foods is so effective. Kids raised to eat one way need good guidance and role models to learn to appreciate a different way of eating.

    I also think there’s something to your point about salad bars and choice. My 6-year-old daughter loves having lunch at the salad/grain bar at our local grocery because she gets to pick exactly what she wants. And there have been studies in other schools showing that offering kids salad-bar choices (and making them look appetizing!) increases vegetable (and other whole food) consumption.

    And yes, get the sugar out! That seems like such a no-brainer, but of course it’s complicated by powerful food marketers, industry lobbyists and even parents themselves who don’t want their kids to be “denied” treats.

    I really admire the work you’re doing with this series.


    Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

  • J in Va

    “I don’t know why anyone would not like vegetables. They are yummy!” This is a quote from my nearly 11 year old dd (whose favorite vegetable is brussel sprouts) as she looked over my shoulder as I read this article. And yes, she eats acorn squash and collards.

    OK… she says she doesn’t like collards but will eat them on occasion.

    I have no magical formula to reproduce this in other children. All I know is when you breastfeed and expose children to veggies from an early age, and limit their TV exposure, you may get a child who will eat any fruit or veggie before her EXCEPT bananas.

    This is also inspite of the fact that many of her private schoolmates snub her lunches and eat really unhealthy foods (especially pizza pockets ) which dd said were yucky when given one to try!

  • sarah henry

    Hi Ed,

    With all due respect — and you know I admire your work on both school food series — I have to beg to differ on this one.

    I’ve also taught cooking to elementary age kids, volunteer at Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard kitchen, and feed hungry young ones on a regular basis.

    In my experience, to say kids don’t like their veg, just isn’t true. I do think how produce is presented, prepared, and plated can make a huge difference, but most children I encounter do eat vegetables.

    My son has a buddy who asks for sprouts when we go to the farmers’ market, a galpal and her brother regularly forage greens from their backyard garden, my boy prefers his veg raw (in sticks or salads) or pureed (in soups or sauces).

    The students I cook with almost always eat the vegetarian dishes we make together, or at least try a polite bite. Sounds like yours do too.

    Would they choose chocolate milk and chicken nuggets over a salad and tap water at a school cafeteria? Quite possibly. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like veggies.

    That said, I believe you when you report back that Berkeley middle schoolers skipped the veggie selections — or most of them ended up in the compost.

    I just don’t buy that kids don’t like greens, even if they choose not to eat them at school.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sarah, I’ve yet to be in a cafeteria situation where the kids were really going for the vegetables. I think that’s why you see chefs in these situations looking for ways to work vegetables into the meals in less obvious ways. I am eager to be convinced otherwise. I know there are kids who really like vegetables, and situations where kids seem to be more open to consuming vegetables. But in cafeterias where most school food is served–not so much. Hence the reluctance on the part of food service directors to pile on even more vegetables, as called for in the proposed Institute of Medicine Standards. The broader point being, before we tie ourselves up in knots over more or less vegetables, lets take care of the easy problems, like getting sugar and starch carbs out of school meals.

  • ieatreal

    I helped start Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre organic farm (think 8 football fields) on a middle school campus, and I worked with a completely heat-n-serve district start to incorporate fresh produce into their school lunches. I’ve spent lots of time in school cafeterias and seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Yes, the reality is that most kids won’t eat vegetables. However, this is a ::learned:: behavior — and that’s where the premise of this article deeply disturbs me. It starts from a premise of defeat. It also puts the kids in the drivers’ seat. It’s like saying “most kids don’t like doing math, so we should stop trying to teach it. Let’s see if we can trick them into adding every once in a while, but we can’t ::make:: them learn the concepts – they don’t ::like:: it.” It sure would save a lot of money. Think of all the math teachers we pay, and the kids aren’t even listening half the time!

    I’ve taught whole classes of 7th graders who have never even SEEN a radish, cabbage, or head of garlic. I’ve also watched kids who have grown up on soda and fast food absolutely devour a plate of quinoa, collards, and broccoli. There is so much room for learning and growth there, it’s ridiculous to stop before we’ve even started.

    The reason why farm & garden programs are SO effective is that they provide kids with an emotional connection to fresh healthy food. And we are ALL emotional eaters – food marketing companies know this and exploit it. The schools need to exploit it too. The reason why that Ethiopian stew was so loved? Pride. Kids take pride in what they grow, and what they cook. And that sense of pride and accomplishment, and a fondness for those foods? It lasts a lifetime.

    So forget a salad bar in every school. Forget “low pressure”, defeatist ideas. How about, a garden in every school and kids in every school’s kitchen cafeteria? I want to see growing, harvesting, and meal preparation as part of our nation’s standard curriculum. Not because every single veggie-phobe will turn a corner. Not because it’s “cost-effective”. But because, like math class, garden class and cooking class are a basic need. And it’s a lot more critical than pre-algebra. It’s about kids having the health and lifespan that we do. If we say “they just don’t LIKE it” and shrug our shoulders in resignation, we just add to the life sentence of addiction and ill health that junk food companies have written for our children. Don’t fall into this trap.

    Liz Snyder

  • Adriana

    I just want to echo everyone else’s point that kids dislike vegetables only because adults expect it. My 6-year-old won’t eat every vegetable but he loves (not just likes, LOVES) sugar snap peas, green beans, carrots, broccoli. He will eat any green as long as it’s not bitter or spicy. We share our love of veggies with him and cook those veggies simply. I agree with the matter of choice, too. Kids really respond well to having choices, as with the salad bar.

  • Andi

    The one change that would be so simple, so easy, not very expensive and yet I have never seen any mention of it is white bread. Why do schools serve white bread, ever?

    I have talked about this with many parents and they say their kids don’t like whole wheat bread. When I ask if they buy whole wheat bread, they say no, which is entirely expected.

    If schools made that one small change, simply replace whole wheat (or even better, multi-grain) bread for all of the bleached white flour products sold in school lunches, just that one change would make a real difference.

    It seems so simple.

  • Giovanna

    I think another part of the problem is the way kids eat at school. The one year I ate in a cafeteria (in Berkeley, many many years ago), food was served family style. We sat at tables for 8-10, had plates, and bowls of food were passed around. And I believe there was an adult at each table monitoring manners (but this could just be rosy hindsight).

    When kids go through lines to take what they want, with only other kids modeling food choices, it’s not that surprising that they would choose to copy their peers.

  • abaskovic

    My five-year-old daughter was pointed out as a good example by a teacher in the cafeteria one day for ordering – and eating – the broccoli that was served with her lunch. She says the school makes good broccoli, which is good news.

    I agree that kids should be getting vegetables in whatever dish they are served; especially for kids who won’t eat them outright. Schools are in a unique palace to help, but I do believe the responsibility rests with the parents. I attribute my daughter’s eating habits to the fact that we gave her vegetables from the first day she was able to eat them. It has always been part of our household.

    Bottom line, if we don’t eat them, why should our kids?

  • Lisa R Suriano

    I have to speak up on this one. I have helped create a small parallel universe in which students do clamor for vegetables. I swear it is happening before my very eyes!!!
    I have created a program that infuses the lunchtime vegetable experience with fun and ownership for kids. The results have astounded me.
    While I am a strong believer in the power a school garden can have in empowering kids to eat their veggies, it can be a logistical challenge. (particularly in NYC where are space is limited to put it mildly) Because of this and other budget/time restraints, I faced resistance from administrators on garden initiatives. So I realized I needed to do something that would integrate seamlessly into the cafeteria and classroom. Check out what we are up to if you are interested:

    Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree that salad bars are an invaluable tool in lunchrooms for many many MANY reasons. Your “National School Salad Bar Initiative” is no joke – its spot on smart thinking!

    Keep up the awesome work 🙂

  • dwtaylor05

    Hi Ed, enjoyed the article. While salad bars are definitely only one piece of the puzzle, there is a major salad bar initiative underway called “A Salad Bar in Every School.”

    The First Lady’s “Let’s Move” team has been briefed on this campaign and has expressed their support for both the mission and the campaign itself.


  • Sheila Crye

    The United States has lost a couple generations of home cooks, an unintended consequence of full employment. It does little good to teach young people how to cook and garden, if they experience cognitive dissonance at home. Here’s a trend to watch, and in which to participate: parent/youth cooking classes.

  • Philip Bean, AIA

    I design commercial food service facilities for a living, and wish that the Berkeley model could be integrated in every school I work with…but reality makes this look like a dim possibility. Many of the high schools I work on have over 3,000 students in one school and due to pay and a less that 40 hr work week, finding good culinary staff is almost impossible. Security and theft are big issues, and the dining room is just a big, scary place…If I could hope for one change it would be for smaller schools…it is just one solution for a system that needs a lot of solutions and a lot of change…longer lunch periods, teachers willing to eat with the students, nutrition education, getting rid of the soda and snack vending machines that fund the sports programs, and more money and support for school food service programs…