In Berkeley, Calif., lunch has become a learning experience
Chef Ann Cooper is a lunch lady with a mission. She heaves another 10-gallon pot of marinara sauce onto a worktable as she prepares lunch for more than 2,000 elementary school students at the Berkeley Unified School District Kitchen. On the menu: baked pasta primavera.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Cooper ladles the sauce over a bin of rotini noodles and mixes it all together. The noodles disintegrate in her hands, and lunch turns into, well, red mush.
"I've been looking at it all morning," Cooper says, "and I've just been in tears because ... this is what we're feeding our kids."
Though she made the sauce from scratch, the low-quality "commodity noodles" ordered through the US government's national school lunch program are a good example of what's served in schools across the country, she says.
Cooper hopes to change that. Her arrival last October as the new director of nutrition services for Berkeley's public schools coincided with the district's new School Lunch Initiative, an ambitious long-range plan to put the district's 10,000 students on a path of lifelong healthy eating habits. In California, 28 percent of schoolchildren are overweight or obese, reflecting a nationwide problem.
Berkeley's School Lunch Initiative aims to replace low-quality "heat and eat" processed foods with fresh, locally grown food. The plan also teaches kids about how food gets from seed to plate by establishing school gardens and kitchen classrooms that integrate lessons about food and cooking into the academic curriculum. Organizers hope children will not only learn about the art and science of food, but also adopt nutritious eating habits.
"Teaching kids about food is as important as math or science," Cooper says.
Berkeley is not alone in trying to encourage children to eat better. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 16 percent, or about 9 million school-age children in the US are overweight - a figure that's tripled since 1980. The news has caused many schools to rethink lunch menus and eliminate junk food by pulling the plug on vending machines and turning away soft-drink corporations bidding for so-called "pouring rights."
The Chez Panisse Foundation, founded by restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters, has committed to raising $4 million to jump-start Berkeley's school-lunch initiative. While the long-term cost of the plan is unknown, backers say the benefit of spending more on nutritious lunches for children now means spending less on healthcare later. "They're being educated out there by a fast-food nation," Ms. Waters says. "We have to really see the public school system as a way to teach a different set of values."
Back in the kitchen, Cooper's plan is to serve nothing but fresh meat and produce from regional farms - and preferably organic. That means cooking from scratch, rare in school districts. The marinara sauce she's made would put a smile on any Italian grandmother's face - it contains more than 100 pounds of fresh vegetables. Cooper has 32 years' experience as a chef and sits on the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board. Before she took over, the lunch staff would have simply opened cans of tomato sauce.
By revamping the lunch menu, Cooper is following the guidelines of a new California law to go into effect in 2007, which sets limits on the sugar and fat content in foods and what drinks can be sold in schools. It also places restrictions for selling candy for fund-raising purposes, which has been met with criticism.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, experts say, easy-to-eat, processed foods became the norm in a time-crunched society. Schools choose processed and packaged foods because they are convenient and save on labor costs.
But expose students to freshly prepared foods everyday, and eventually they'll choose chard over Cheetos, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University.
"The idea was that you had to give kids what they liked, or they wouldn't eat it," Professor Nestle says. "It turns out that kids can learn to like a lot of different kinds of foods."