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BUSD Losing Big Bucks On Food Service Program

Friday February 27, 2004

At a Wednesday night Berkeley School Board meeting this week, with Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters sitting beside board members, district brass pledged to tackle one of their most foul problems—bad food. 

The district that is periodically mistakenly lauded for a long-defunct program to include organic vegetables in school lunches actually serves most of its students prepackaged, airplane style meals, if it offers anything at all, and it’s losing a bundle doing it. 

The cafeteria fund is roughly $600,000 in debt. Though district officials say $460,000 of that is caused by the loss of a general fund subsidy, food service deficits have cost the district’s general fund roughly $1.1 million during the past three years—all that in the midst a budget crisis that has resulted in layoffs and increased class sizes. 

“Everyone agrees the food is terrible,” said Eric Weaver, chair of the district’s Child Nutrition Advisory Committee. “That’s not the issue, but the question is how do you fix it when everyone is broke.” 

Wednesday night the district laid out a vision of Berkeley students munching on fresh, locally grown produce but offered few details how the district could pay for it.  

Superintendent Michele Lawrence called for a school lunch curriculum in which nutrition and food are integrated into every Berkeley school. She gave examples that included elementary students learning about carbohydrates in the lunchroom and high school students reading Fast Food Nation in English class. 

Then there’s the food. The district wants to replace prepackaged, re-heated food with fresh fare cooked on-site, but officials acknowledge that under present circumstances such a shift would push food and staff costs even higher. 

The strategy, district officials say, will be to win funding from foundations and government agencies to cover the added costs. Zenobia Barlow of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which has partnered with the school district on other nutrition programs, presented board members with over a dozen foundations that provide nutrition grants, and said she was confident the money could be found. 

District officials cautioned that when it came to reforming food service, they had no definitive plan, no clear funding and no estimate of how much money was required. 

“We’re not certain yet how this is going to play out,” Lawrence told the board. 

If Berkeley succeeds, officials said it would be the first district to free itself from the mass produced food cycle forced on districts by stingy federal and state school lunch programs that act as subsidies for large corporate food processors to provide food that offers little flavor or nutritional value. 

Karen Candito, the district’s director of nutrition services, said the current system gave Berkeley no alternative to the cheapest options. The district receives $2.32 for every student who qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. Of that, Candito explained, the majority goes to labor and operational costs. That leaves only 17 cents for milk, 15 cents for fruit and 15 cents for vegetables. 

Insufficient funding has meant few takers at school cafeterias, Weaver said. “Right now the only kids eating the lunch are the ones who get it for free.” 

Weaver and other parents have pushed for better food in the district for years, arguing that attractive meals were the only way to get students to buy the school lunch and plug the budget deficit. 

Candito, though, said her calculations showed that even if every child in the district ate a freshly prepared school lunch, the cafeteria fund would still be in the red. She said high labor costs and cost inefficiencies of operating 11 small, 200-student elementary schools made on-site preparation of fresh food unfeasible without aid.  

“To go from producing 200 meals to four hundred meals wouldn’t cost much more, but the revenue would double,” she said. She added that any funding for fresh food must be sustainable, pointing to the organic vegetable program, sponsored by Chez Panisse, that collapsed after seed funding ran out. 

The push to remake school meals comes as the district faces a turning point in food services. This fall, the high school food court comes on-line offering freshly prepared food to students accustomed to lunching at Shattuck Avenue restaurants.  

In 2005, King Middle School is scheduled to debut its new dining hall—a partnership subsidized in part by Chez Panisse’s Waters—that promises fresh produce for students. Superintendent Lawrence has stated she wants the King program available to all students within five years. 

Currently Longfellow and Willard middle schools are the culinary jewels of the district. Each receives federal grant money to provide international food and salad bars prepared on site. Both elementary schools and King currently serve pre-packaged food. 

The Stationary Engineers, Local 39, which represents district food service workers, cautiously backs the district’s vision, which calls for retaining workers and ultimately hiring additional staff to prepare fresh food. The union has historically butted heads with the district over food service and still remains skeptical of the plan in light of the school board’s decision last month to lay off the equivalent of two food delivery drivers and reduced the hours of its inventory operator. 

“If they’re planning to have fresh produce every day it requires capacity to receive and deliver the food, but Candito has destroyed the infrastructure to serve kids,” said Local 39 Business Representative Stephanie Allen. “It’s my members who have to serve this garbage to students. There’s nothing they would like more than to prepare and serve good food.”