Jefferson Kitchen Plans Scrapped, for Now

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 26, 2008 - 09:27:00 AM

Plans to remodel the central kitchen at Jefferson Elementary School have been dropped to cut costs and make the nutrition services program function independently of school bond money, district officials said Monday. 

Meals for more than 3,000 Berkeley Unified students were scheduled to be cooked in the kitchen of the dining commons at King Middle School and at the new Jefferson kitchen.  

The King Dining Commons will now offer the district’s sole central kitchen starting Aug. 11, and the district will monitor its operations over the next six months to determine whether a second central kitchen would be required at Jefferson. 

The recommendation, which came from Berkeley Unified superintendent Bill Huyett, will save up to $1 million in construction costs, and provide an opportunity for the nutrition services program to use funds generated from revenue instead of dipping into the district’s general fund. 

In previous years, some members of the Berkeley Board of Education expressed concern at the “encroachment” of the nutrition services on the general fund, and former district superintendent Michele Lawrence stressed the importance of monitoring the encroachment of dollars at a board meeting in September 2006. 

“When I took a tour of the district’s facilities and examined the size of our program at the King Dining Commons, the question arose whether there was immediate need to have a second kitchen,” Huyett said. “Our kitchen at King should be able to take care of our needs. The question is why put more money into renovating another kitchen when we are already putting money into King. It’s a question of wait and see.” 

Huyett said the district would hold the funds for the Jefferson project for the next six months, and then make a decision. 

“We are taking more steps to curtail the cost of food service,” Huyett said. “We have a contribution from the general fund and we are trying to eliminate that. We are making some progress on that, and it will probably take three years to make it stand on its own.” 

Besides district bond money, the nutrition service program is also funded by the federally assisted National Reduced Lunch Program and state and federal funds. 

Berkeley Unified caught the attention of the national media three years ago with its revamped nutritional services, which introduced some of the most sweeping menu changes across the country by Berkeley’s self-proclaimed “Renegade Lunch Lady” Chef Ann Cooper. 

Cooper, hired as food services director three years ago by the district, called the decision on the Jefferson kitchen “good.” 

“We need to open the dining commons to see what the capacity is and what kind of challenges we face,” said Cooper, who is currently on vacation in Vermont, to the Planet in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “It’s prudent to spend some time at King before we decide to finalize plans at Jefferson.” 

Cooper, who will be with Berkeley Unified for another year, said it would be challenging for the nutrition services program to break free from the general fund. 

“We need to raise participation to get more revenue,” she said. “We need more kids eating. Right now we have less than 3,000 kids eating at the school cafeteria.” 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent budget cut proposals for state education funds was also a blow to Cooper’s program and left it with a $150,000 deficit, Cooper said. 

Cooper is currently feeding the district from the kitchen at Jefferson, which underwent its last major remodeling in 1985, but is excited about the transition to King over the summer. 

“It’s going to be great,” she said of the dining commons, which will have her office staff, an executive chef, a sous chef, three cooks and a supervisor from King.