Waters Signs Deal to Upgrade School Lunches

Friday July 02, 2004

Imagine lunch hour at a Berkeley middle school: Eighth graders tossing salad side by side with cafeteria workers, seventh graders eating the chard they grew in the school garden while receiving a geography lesson, sixth graders sorting seeds to plant for the next harvest.  

Every morsel is organic, locally grown and guaranteed not to plunge Berkeley Unified into bankruptcy. 

For 15 years that has been the dream of Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, and now, after revolutionizing American cuisine, the Berkeley chef is fronting millions to turn her dream into reality for Berkeley students. 

In an agreement signed Wednesday, Waters—through the Chez Panisse Foundation—committed herself to raise nearly $4 million over the next three years and an undetermined sum through 2014 to reinvent the school lunch at Berkeley Unified, and she hopes, ultimately, across the country. 

“The intention is to teach school lunch as a course,” she said. Waters, a former Montessori teacher who chose not to send her child to Berkeley public schools, envisions Berkeley students from kindergartners through high school seniors taking an active role in their school lunch. Students would plant seeds, raise crops, cook food, learn about sustainable ecosystems, and—as they advance—study nutrition as part of their classroom curriculum. 

The program will start at Martin Luther King Middle School, where Waters has funded the school’s edible school yard program for nine years and starting in 2005 will help run its new dining commons. By 2007, the district plans to expand the program to two elementary schools.  

LeConte, one of the first schools to have a garden, has been selected as the first elementary school for the Waters program, Superintendent Michele Lawrence said. Meanwhile, Waters, the Center for Ecoliteracy, Children’s Hospital of Oakland, and Berkeley Unified teachers and staff will devise a nutrition curriculum throughout the district. 

Waters has not only guaranteed the money to furnish the King cafeteria and edible school yard, she will pay for the curriculum development team and provide more than $800,000 to cover the projected operating deficits for moving to locally produced, freshly prepared organic food. 

When the program is complete, every school in Berkeley will have its own garden and full service cafeteria where students can play a leading role in providing for their nutritional needs. 

“The plan is to engage every single solitary kid,” Waters said. “This seems like the one permanent solution for the obesity epidemic in our country.” 

The Center for Disease Control reported that the U.S. spent $75 billion in 2003 treating obesity-related health problems, and although Berkeley might be a far cry from Houston, the fattest city in America three years running according to Men’s Fitness magazine, Berkeley’s youth are not immune to the national trend. 

About 15 percent of Berkeley youth are obese, roughly equal to the national average, according to Kate Clayton, the city’s Chronic disease Prevention Program Manager. “Unfortunately, some of the uniqueness that we have here is not reflected in better health and nutrition,” she said.  

Results from the 2001 California Physical Fitness Test found that students in Assemblymember Loni Hancock’s district, which all of Berkeley and 12 other East Bay cities, are only slightly fitter than the state average. Twenty four percent of students in Hancock’s district were deemed overweight compared to 27 percent across the state. African American and Latino children were more than twice as likely to be overweight than white children, according to the report. 

Superintendent Lawrence hoped that if after 10 years of private funding the Berkeley program showed improved levels of student fitness, the district would receive state and federal funds to continue it. The agreement signed Wednesday didn’t include measurable standards for determining fitness. 

While never the paragon of culinary excellence, school lunches have deteriorated nationwide. Many cash-strapped districts have fallen prey to 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. Such has been the case in Berkeley, where students at King and the elementary schools have been eating re-heated, pre cooked meals for years.  

The food at Berkeley Unified has been slowly improving, but lunchroom finances continue to suffer. This year the school’s cafeteria fund is $300,000 in the red, after the deficit topped $600,000 last year. 

To make freshly-prepared organic food a financially viable option for a district that loses money selling a lot of cheap prepackaged lunches, Waters estimates she will have to raises “tens of millions” over the next 10 years. 

She listed philanthropists Robert Wood Johnson and the Kellogg Foundation as possible contributors, and said she has spoken with a United States Senator who offered to seek federal funding. 

The foundation has raised around $400,000 a year for the King cafeteria and others projects in Northern California, but Waters is confident her concern over obesity will make the fundraising drive a success. 

“My plan is that in three years we’ll have millions to fund the entire program,” Waters said. “If not, I’ll have to sell my home.”