So I was sitting at a meeting with the school principal talking about school gardens and the subject of pre-made versus fresh food in schools came up. I said, "Well, you have a kitchen here where you make all the meals, I'd love to be a fly on the wall and write this up on my blog." I appeared the next morning and expected to see food being made from scratch. It was the exact opposite.
How did the school react to your version of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution?
I'm sure from the school system's point of view this was the worst thing that could happen: a former newspaper reporter, who's also a parent, stumbles into the kitchen and writes this expose of what they're serving. The morning after I posted first piece, the phone rang and it was the principal asking me what I'd written. The kitchen director had passed it along, and the principal was a little flummoxed by it. Since then, the kitchen manager has been reassigned.
What are some of the biggest food issues facing urban schools today?
I was kind of bowled over when I watched Jamie Oliver's show. When he was wagging the little piece of chicken at the lunch ladies I said, "Dang, that's the same stuff we're serving here." What he found there is exactly the same stuff I found in the D.C. school. There's this bifurcation of the food system here: you have privileged kids getting the great food we're all talking about, while the great unwashed masses out there have to eat tater tots and scraps processed into nuggets and ammonia-washed beef with phony grill marks on it. They're getting the worst of what our industrial food service has to offer.
The parents don't go inside because they're not encouraged to. The "nutritional requirements" in schools have all kinds of loopholes. You can pack as much "nutrition" you want into the food, and it's still junk. For example, breakfast at my daughter's school is applejacks, strawberry milk, and Pop Tarts. When you add it all up, the kids are eating more than a quarter cup of sugar for breakfast.
You recently visited Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. What did you learn from their approach?
After seeing the industrially processed, frozen foods fed to the kids in D.C., I wanted to see if there was a district doing just the opposite. So I called the food services director at Martin Luther King, bought a plane ticket, and flew out there to spend a week as a kitchen lady. I had the apron, latex, gloves, hair net--which I eventually switched out for a baseball cap from UC Berkeley bookstore.
They had me working jobs all over the kitchen, called the Dining Commons, which is about the size of a basketball court. This is all the result of an effort that the parents, Alice Waters, and the school were involved in to start serving fresh meals. They passed a bond initiative to build a new central kitchen and cooking facility for all 16 schools in the Berkeley School District. The place looks like a little lodge from Yosemite National Park, and it's where they cook meals for all 9,100 kids in the district.