An ex-Washington Post reporter, who now blogs about food, recently spent a week embedded in the central kitchen of the Berkeley Unified School District.

Ed Bruske’s mission: To find out how one school community manages to cook food from scratch for its students.

Earlier this year, Bruske embarked on a similar reporting project. He wanted to know just what gets dished up for lunch at his daughter’s elementary school in D.C. He detailed his culinary misadventures with school cafeteria food in the nation’s capital in a seven-part series called Tales from a D.C. Kitchen. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the kids ate pre-cooked, processed foods, not unlike the fare the Berkeley school district rejected several years ago.

Many school districts — as you probably know unless you’ve been hiding under a pile of commodity chicken nugget boxes lately — typically dish up frozen, industrially manufactured foods. “The joke in school food circles these days is that the most important tool in modern school kitchens has become the box cutter,” writes Bruske in his blog, The Slow Cook. All the better to quickly slice through the boxes and plastic wrap to get to the “food-like” products, such as the ubiquitous chicken nuggets and tater tots. Then they’re ready for reheating in the microwave before serving them up on plastic trays for lunch.

Bruske’s first report from our city’s school kitchen focuses on prepping chicken, which in Berkeley means frozen pieces marinated in teriyaki sauce, not those pulverized patties pushed in cafeterias across the country that Jamie Oliver deconstructed for kids on his recent Food Revolution TV show, set in Huntington, West Virginia — dubbed the unhealthiest town in America. (The Huntington kids, um, ate them up, unlike kids in England, who refused to touch the patties when The Naked Chef conducted the same experiment there.)

The takeaway from Bruske’s first installment? Making real food requires real labor. Labor takes time and time is money. And even in Berkeley’s much-touted “revolutionized” school food scene, which has benefited from the culinary chops of Alice Waters and Ann Cooper, the grand dames of the school food improvement movement, you will still see pizza on the menu at least once and sometimes twice a week — including at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, home to the Edible Schoolyard and the state-of-the-art Dining Commons. Nachos too. (In fairness, though, the pizza is made with a whole-wheat crust, scratch sauce, veggie toppings and turkey sausage. And the nachos are made with whole foods as well.)

Still, as Bruske notes: “Alice Waters might cringe at the way her food rules have been bent to accommodate juvenile tastes.”

Stay tuned for further dispatches from the school food frontlines over at The Slow Cook — including what happens when parents just say no to processed foods, and how to get kids on board with a new school lunch menu.

Photo: Berkeley Unified School District.

Sarah Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food, family and growing greens on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

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  1. Here’s what the BUSD’s executive chef Bonnie Christensen told me about the school food prgram’s currrent fiscal state: “The program essentially breaks even and we no longer take money from the general fund,” says Christensen.

    “There isn’t any profit, per se, any money left over after paying for food, labor, and supplies is reinvested in the program. But we are paying our bills and staying in the black. We keep a watchful eye over our expenses on a daily basis. We work within a very tight budget. There is no wiggle room.”

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Yes, I know someone who’s in the central kitchen. She’s a great person to interview for your weekly posting on Berkeley cuisine!

  3. Anybody know current and projected deficits for this food program? Someone told me $2 M in the red for the 08-09 fiscal year, but I never confirmed that figure.

  4. Hi Deirdre,

    Thanks for the birds-eye view. I wonder if you — or someone close to you — is in the Berkeley schools central kitchen?

    Regardless, you raise a valid point about the need for training and buy-in from existing employees for a food revolution to run well without resentment.

  5. When the BUSD food system was revamped after Chef Ann was hired, the food delivery system went from re-heating frozen food to all-scratch cooking. Needless to say, it was a revolution. Chef Ann quickly hired a few supervisorial chefs — professional chefs with restaurant pedigrees and culinary school degrees — and gradually spent as much time (or more) preaching the gospel of scratch cooking as she did any cooking. This is not to disparage her contribution: advocacy is vital in creating a revolution.

    The piece of the puzzle that wasn’t well thought out was the need to persuade dozens of BUSD line cooks and cafeteria supervisors before the revolution could truly succeed. Some of these workers were hired years ago. All are unionized. They spent years in which their job involved re-heating frozen foods, opening plastic containers, and so forth. During these years, they also dined on the food that they served (which makes sense in terms of convenience and cost). Now, in some cases many years after they were hired, they are being asked to cook menu items from scratch. They aren’t really trained to do it, they never had to do it before, they resent it, and their union backs them up. So…. it’s not a great situation. Chef Ann is long gone, the professionial chefs she hired are still there, and they face an enormous amount of resentment from the other food service workers every single day.