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Chef Stirs Up Fancy Food For Berkeley School Kids

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday October 03, 2006

Two turkey hot dogs, Tater Tots, canned fruit and chocolate milk—that was what lunch meant for Berkeley public school students a year ago. 

Today, kids are served “made from scratch” nutrient-based lunches, such as rotini with fresh tomato sauce, roast herb chicken or tofu, fresh fruit and low-fat milk, choices which are a far cry from the prepackaged heat-and-serve frozen lunches they got before. 

“I banned transfats, preservatives, refined flour, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, white bread, generic hot dogs and hamburgers and too salty foods when I started out last fall,” said Ann Cooper, who marked her first anniversary as the nutrition services director for the Berkeley schools on Oct. 1. 

“It’s been a challenge, and cooking for school children is no chef’s fantasy, but I have enjoyed every minute of it,” she said. “What is important is that the kids are finally getting to eat healthy and the project is getting a lot of good press.” 

Cooper, a former celebrity chef and author of Lunch Lessons, was hired and funded by a three-year financial grant from the Chez Panisse Foundation last October to rebuild the nutrition services in the schools. 

“I wanted to not only improve the food, but also come up with some kind of a blueprint for changing school lunches nationwide,” she said. “I worked on menu cycles, recipes, ordering guides, and staffing changes. The school board recently approved a staffing reorganization which will help the Nutrition Services to function in this way even after I leave, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.” 

The ride, however, hasn’t been smooth. 

“Berkeley’s Renegade Lunch Lady,” as Cooper is fond of calling herself, has met obstacles including elementary school tantrums about pizza toppings, dilapidated kitchen infrastructure, staff shortages and a tight public-school budget. 

“The kids hated the corn, zucchini and other vegetarian toppings,” said Alicha Byrd, a satellite operator for the Malcolm X Elementary School cafeteria. “The meat eaters thought that they were being forced to become vegetarian and they would just toss the slices into the trash.” 

Malcolm X fifth-grader Iyaunti Yancay said even with the addition of meat toppings, the new pizza is still not to her liking. 

“The pizzas we get now are just bread, sauce and cheese, and the pepperoni is sometimes uncooked, I still toss mine into the trash. I want real toppings,” she said wrinkling up her nose during lunch on Wednesday. She added that she craved hamburgers, nachos, and hot dogs and missed chocolate milk. 

Her friend Sana Khan said that the food had improved since last year. 

“At least we eat it now,” Sana said. “Earlier we used to toss it around and lie to our teachers that we had eaten it. But I wish we could have some sort of a dessert,” she said, over her lunch of teriyaki meatballs, veggie lo-mein and stir-fried vegetables. 

“Change is hard for the kids but in this case it is for the best. Dessert, however, is an absolute no-no,” said Cooper firmly, as she ordered her staff around the Central Kitchen at Jefferson Elementary School around 7 a.m. on Thursday.  

“Most adults don’t have dessert for lunch, even if they say they do,” she said. “So why should kids? They do get fresh fruit for dessert, which is healthy. They also get grass-fed hot dogs once every month. I have banned chocolate milk, fried food and vending machines. It’s tough, I know, but the kids have to get used to it.” 

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Cooper’s background lies in cooking for cruise ships and celebrities as varied as Hillary Clinton and The Grateful Dead. Her only experience in cooking for hungry school children comes from consulting for charter and public schools in New York, and most recently from working as a chef for the privately owned Ross School in East Hampton. 

At Ross, Cooper had 27 employees for 500 diners and spent $12 a day on each child for breakfast and lunch. In Berkeley, however, she feeds 4,000 hungry children on a staff of 53 and a budget of $3.50 for the same two meals. 

Cooper said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which uses the commodity program to buy up farm surpluses and stabilize prices, is responsible for the imbalance in the meat and dairy products and vegetables that are sent to school cafeterias annually.  

“I want to sue the USDA for all the unhealthy food it keeps on feeding school children every year,” she said. 

When the USDA visited the Berkeley Nutritional Services Department in March, they noted that the food was “very high quality and was visually pleasing as well as tasty,” but wanted Cooper to follow a “nutrient-based menu planning.” 

“We are following USDA guidelines and entering every recipe into a USDA- approved database so that their ingredients can be broken up into vitamins, proteins and minerals. We are getting ready for the USDA’s visit in November,” said Cooper. 

With the help of the Chez Panisse Foundation, Cooper is trying to document the changes that she is bringing into the school district’s Nutrition Services system. The foundation is also funding a study by the UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health that will gauge the emotional, physical and academic effects of this project on children over a period of four years, she said. 

“Right now we buy differently, cook differently and feed differently. Kids will always crave junk food, but we are the adults, the caregivers,” Cooper said. “If we educate them about healthy choices, they are sure to take it up.” 

However, for Berkeley High students Kimberly Moreno and Vanessa Gonzales, street food takes preference over the freshly cooked cafeteria fare every day. 

“We are used to junk food,” Kimberly said. “We don’t care about the new lunches even if they taste better. The cafeteria lines are way too long.” 

“Plus we get healthy options outside too if we want it,” Vannessa added, as they joined their friends inside Peiking Express, a Chinese fast-food joint on Center Street. 

The BHS cafeteria offers up to four different food stations everyday with choices including a farm-fresh organic salad bar and a rotating Asian, American, Mexican and Italian food counter. Starting today (Tuesday), a healthy snack store will open in the campus cafeteria. 

“We are in competition with all the bad stuff that is available on Shattuck Avenue,” said the school district’s Executive Chef Margarite Larau, who joined Cooper’s team last fall. “Kids in high school have the freedom to just walk outside the door and eat what they want. No matter how good the school lunches are, it is a little difficult to attract kids because we are an open campus. There are 3,000 students in BHS but we serve only 300 to 400 meals every day.” 

Last Friday was burrito day at BHS. Filled with a choice of either bean and cheese or chicken, the All Star burritos were fresh and transfat-free. 

Standing in line with his students was BHS Principal Jim Slemp. “I eat at the different stations every day,” Slemp said. “They provide good choices for everyone. I am glad to see that the kids are finally enjoying their food.” 

Meg Veitch, a sophomore at BHS, said that the quality of cafeteria food had improved since last year. “Most people are happy with the healthy choices offered. But the fruits are not very fresh. By the time we get them, they get all soft and yucky,” she said. 

Rio Bauce, a junior at BHS, chair of the Berkeley Youth Commission and occasional writer for the Daily Planet, said that he had noticed longer lines at the school cafeteria recently. 

“The new lunch project hasn’t created a major buzz among the students yet, but it’s slowly getting noticed,” he said. “Most of us eat out or bring our own food, so it will be sometime before all the different healthy options get sampled. Till then Top Dog and Extreme Pizza get first preference.”