Sea Cliff Nutrition Committee. The Apple People

Sea Cliff Nutrition Committee. The Apple People

Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Blogger Ed Bruske -- Activist from Better DC School Food

Ed Bruske is a journalist, chef and gardener turned activist on a mission to improve the school food in Washington, DC and elsewhere. You can read his terrific commentary at and

A Tale of Two Lunches . . . and a Call to Action

by Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

One school serves chicken nuggets, frozen in a distant factory and re-heated for a few minutes in the oven. Another school prepares chicken on the bone, brined and roasted from its raw state in an eight-day process. One school feeds five-year-olds up to 15 teaspoons of sugar in the morning: Apple Jacks cereal, strawberry milk, orange juice, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams. Another makes breakfast more like camping out: a simple packet of Nature’s Path Oaty Bites, an apple, a container of plain milk.

Believe it or not, these two public schools exist in the same country, even though their methods of feeding children seem worlds apart. The school that serves industrially-processed chicken nuggets and sugar for breakfast happens to be the elementary school my 10-year-old daughter attends here in the District of Columbia. The other school with the brined chicken and organic morning meal is located in Berkeley, CA, where I spent a week as a “lunch lady” to see how the other half lives.

Until a few months ago, I was just a former newspaper reporter who liked to compost and grow his family’s food in an urban kitchen garden about a mile from the White House. I started a blog—The Slow Cook--to record my gardening adventures, never suspecting I would get caught up in the war over school food as an investigative journalist.

One day I was sitting in a meeting with the principal and assistant principal at my daughter’s school, talking about building a garden there, when someone mentioned that the newly-renovated school building had a commercial-grade kitchen where meals were being “fresh cooked.”

To see food being cooked from scratch at school: That, I thought, would make a great story for my blog. I got permission to observe for a week. What I saw took my breath away, but not in a good way. “Fresh cooked,” it turned out, meant that instead of importing finished meals from a suburban factory, D.C. schools now were simply re-heating processed foods that arrived frozen from all over the country.

Would you believe “scrambled eggs” that have been pre-cooked with a list of additives in Minnesota, frozen, then re-heated in a steamer? The kitchen manager told me she liked to stir shredded cheddar cheese into the eggs to add flavor. Otherwise, there wasn’t much flavor to speak of.

I quickly learned that minimal skill or equipment is needed to feed 300 kids at school every day. The most important tool in school kitchens these days is a box cutter, to open all those cardboard containers the frozen meal components arrive in every week. That’s the “fresh cooked” regime according to the D.C. Public Schools’ contracted food provider, Chartwells.

Apparently, this was the first time a journalist had spent significant time in a modern school kitchen because the series of blog posts I wrote created something of a sensation. I was hooked as well. After my week in the kitchen, I started showing up in the cafeteria every day with my camera to document what the kids were eating. Sometimes my blood boiled, as when I saw kids exiting the food line with a lunch consisting of re-heated potato wedges, a bag of Sun Chips and strawberry milk.

Would you be surprised to learn that under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that govern the federally-subsidized school meals program this lunch is perfectly legal? Kids are only required to select three of five offered items to constitute a “meal.” The potato wedges qualify as a vegetable, the Sun Chips as a grain and the milk—well, milk is its own category. It’s always offered.

Readers were so scandalized by what I was writing about school meals in the nation’s capital—practically within view of the White House where Michelle Obama had launched her anti-obesity campaign--they begged me to find a school district that was serving kids real food. Ann Cooper, the famed “renegade lunch lady,” set me up with a week in the central school kitchen in Berkeley. That’s where Alice Waters had hired Cooper to switch Berkeley schools from the same kind of industrially-processed convenience foods my daughter’s friends are eating to meals cooked from scratch.

At the Berkeley central kitchen—a facility as big as a basketball court that makes meals for some 2,350 kids in the city’s 16 schools—I was handed an apron, a pair of Latex gloves and a hair net and put to work. I sorted chicken pieces for what I called the “epic,” eight-day chicken. I weighed cooked pasta to be trucked to outlying schools. I filled bins for those simple breakfasts, served in the classrooms. And every day around 11:25, I got ready to serve lunch to hordes of middle-schoolers.

I quickly learned that Cooper, more than a “renegade,” is something of an outlaw genius when it comes to making the most out of a school meals budget. While most lunch ladies think in terms of two ounces of this vegetable, or three ounces of that grain, Cooper devised ways to count her salad bar as a vegetable and a grain and a protein. I have seen the eyes of other food service directors grow wide as saucers when Cooper explains how this is done, and how she will tell off state inspectors who might try to stop her. “I’ll believe it when my lawyer tells me it’s so,” is how she responds to government agents who try to cite rules to her.

But I also learned that while the food in Berkeley is cooked fresh, it still looks very much like kids food. The Berkeley system still depends on those federal government subsidies, which are only forthcoming if the kids actually take the meals. Hence, you see pizza twice a week on the Berkeley menu, lots of pasta and chicken. Cooper tried to get rid of nachos and the students went on strike. The best she could do was re-design the nachos without all the goopy, Dayglo cheese.

One industry insider who’s been following my reports complained that what I had done so far was describe two polar-opposite systems, two “extremes” of the nation’s school lunch program. So my reporting is still a work in progress. I plan to visit other school districts to get a more complete sense of where we are in our efforts to feed some 31 million school children every day.

What have I learned so far? First, we don’t have to wait for more standards or more federal money to make school meals healthier. All we have to do is eliminate much of the sugar—what some call the “stealth” ingredient—from school meals. Candied cereals, Pop-Tarts, Goldfish Grahams, strawberry milk, fruit juices, syrupy canned fruit: these might make great business for food manufacturers, but they just fill kids with empty calories. Yet I was surprised to learn that in all the hundreds of pages of rules governing the federal school meals program, there is no standard for how much sugar can be served. And you thought we just needed to worry about sodas in vending machines?

Second, there’s entirely too much attention focused on writing more standards in Washington. Schools have already proved that you can have books filled with standards and they can just as easily translate those into lousy food. No, what really matters is the food kids see on their plate. Is it palatable? Is it fresh? Is it healthy? Does it teach kids lessons about food that you want them to absorb and carry with them into adulthood?

Finally, even the best-intentioned school food service personnel do not have a magic wand they can wave to turn the industrially-processed convenience foods they are serving into food cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients. It has taken decades for schools to sink to the sorry state they are in now, where each, on average, loses 35 cents on every meal they serve.

We now see a kind of circular firing squad around the school food issue, where everyone on the local level blames everyone else for how bad the food is, yet we aren’t supposed to complain because everyone is trying as hard as they can to make it better. Meanwhile, those most responsible—your elected representatives in Congress and in state capitals around the country—look blithely on, occasionally tossing pennies at the problem. In fact, the only people who seem to make out in this situation are food manufacturers, who are getting rich selling frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets, and giant food service providers like Chartwells, Aramark and Sodexo, who work hand-in-hand with their corporate brethren on the manufacturing side.

Yes, folks, it will take money to turn this around—much more money than is currently being proposed. And it will take millions of parents who care. That’s why I urge you not to delay: Make a point to visit your local school. Sit in on lunch and see what kids are actually eating. It might just convince you that school food is not a joke anymore. It has real consequences. You might just be moved to get involved yourself.

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