Public Comment

Commentary: A Choice Between Bad Food and No Food at All

By Eric Weaver
Friday September 22, 2006

As a BUSD parent who has been working on improving the food that the district serves for the past 10 years, I think that there is basic level on which Ms. O’Malley misses the point about the food project at the Berkeley schools. 

Ms. O’Malley admits that she has never tried the food at the schools. I have. I imagine that Ms. O’Malley’s concept of school lunches is based on her own experience, or that of her now grown children, which consisted of the “lunch ladies” making spaghetti or meat loaf every day and serving it on those famous hospital trays. Those days are long gone. 

When I started out, the issue was not a choice between good and varied food and the plain but adequate food advocated in the editorial. The choice was between really bad food and no food at all. The food served in the schools consisted of “grilled cheese sandwiches” that were made in a factory, put in little plastic bags, frozen for months, and then heated in a steamer. Mushy and rubbery. The “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” were some sort of cracker with a little peanut butter and jelly that was handed out like really bad snack bars. “French toast” was french toast sticks. Imagine french toast turned into a chicken tender. Then imagine the whole dreary mess served on a cardboard box with a “spork” (spoon/fork combo) that breaks under the slightest pressure.  

This is not my refined Berkeley food sensibilities speaking either. Much of this “food” went straight to the garbage after a few disappointed bites. Beebo Turman, was the BUSD’s recycling coordinator at the time. She conducted a survey of the garbage generated in the cafeterias to see what the recycling needs were and was appalled to find that 40 percent of the food served went straight to the garbage. She came to the next food committee meeting. The struggle all along has been to develop a menu that children like, is good for them and that they will actually eat.  

There is a strong social justice component to this effort. More than 40 per cent of the children in the Berkeley Schools are entitled to free breakfast and lunch. In 1946, the federal government promised disadvantaged families that it would provide their children with nutritious food at school. During the Reagan administration, the government ceased funding the programs at an adequate level and the result has been a 25-year slide to where were are today. We think that the government should keep its promise and fund the program adequately for the benefit of our children. Ann Cooper, the food service director, calculates that the current reimbursement of $2.50 per day (ever try to eat on that?) could be raised $1 per day for each child in the program across the county for about $5 billion per year. That’s two to three days of the ongoing cost of the war in Iraq. 

Ms. O’Malley is right to be concerned about the cost of Berkeley’s project. However, a few points of clarification are in order. When I started working, the then BUSD officials responded to our concerns by telling us that they knew the food was bad but that at least the Nutrition Services Department was solvent and had even built up a surplus of $1 million. I am not an accountant, but I looked at the books out of curiosity before the now—not so new—superintendent arrived. It only took me two hours to figure out that the books were so incompetently kept that it was impossible to know the actual financial condition of the department. I wrote a detailed report that I presented to the School Board alerting it to that fact. Once the current superintendent arrived, FCMAT confirmed my rough guess and found that the department was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and there was no “surplus.” In the past five years, the department has introduced an accurate and current bookkeeping system that accurately reflects the true cost of the food program, a necessary first step to financial sustainability. 

Although much press attention has focused on the “organic” part of the Berkeley food policy, those who actually read the policy note that goal number two provides that “The board will ensure that an economically sustainable meal program that provides a healthy nutritious lunch is available to every student at every school so that students are prepared to learn to their fullest potential.” As taxpayers, the members of our committee have always balanced the ideal of organic food with the brutal reality of the inadequate funding the government provides the district. We want to create a program that any school district in the country can follow. We know that a “boutique” program will not be adopted elsewhere.  

Will the Food Service ever break even in the absence of an increase in federal/state funding? Probably not unless the District goes back to selling high profit items such as candy, chips and sodas. Was it breaking even before the new effort? Absolutely not. But the current deficit can be greatly reduced if participation increases. However, as every successful businesswoman knows, if you want to increase your sales you first have to invest in developing a high quality product. Moreover, it is ultimately cheaper to feed kids food they actually eat that costs a bit more than to feed them cheaper food that goes straight to the garbage. 

The Food Service has a long way to go but it has also come a long way. Ms. O’Malley, if you want to go for lunch at a public school and see for yourself what we are trying to do, just let me know. I will be glad to meet you there. 


Eric Weaver is the former chair of the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee. 


Opinions expressed in Daily Planet commentary and letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Daily Planet or its staff.