Until earlier this month, students at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley could pretty much eat lunch anywhere they wanted.
Most preferred the baseball field, the steps of the amphitheater, or, as a former King middle-schooler put it, “behind the trucks for maximum shade.”
Berkeley Unified School District’s $8.7 million King Dining Commons project is all set to change that.
Students will now have access to tables, chairs, plates and silverware and, most important, their very own cafeteria. Part of the $36 million King campus modernization and development plan, the dining commons will also serve as the district’s new central kitchen, preparing 3,000 hot lunches and 8,000 meals daily for hungry children at each of the city’s 16 public schools.
The project, originally scheduled for completion last fall, ran into a few minor hiccups along the way but is finally up and running.
Chef Ann Cooper, Berkeley Unified School District's director of nutrition services—who will be with the district through June—was busy supervising her team Friday as they prepared pizza crusts and marinara sauce from scratch in the state-of-the-art kitchen before the new school year starts Aug. 27.
“I am very excited about the space,” Cooper said of the 14,000-square-foot building. “The scale of the place is just amazing. We also have new equipment. The equipment that we had at our old central kitchen at Jefferson [Elementary] was old and broken. It could not handle the quality and quantity of food that we were preparing. Moreover, there wasn’t any room for people to move around. All the aisles were crowded together and you couldn’t get anywhere without bumping into something.”
Cooper currently supervises 55 employees from the district and 30 more from Network for a Healthy California.
The new kitchen and cafeteria will serve 600 hot lunches to middle-schoolers at Washington every day and the rest will be packed and transported to the city’s 15 other public schools.
“We want more kids eating our food,” Cooper said. “Breakfast is up, but we want parents to urge their children to eat lunch at school.”
The 2008-09 school year will see Cooper serving 852,000 breakfasts compared with 58,000 in 2003-04, when she first took over the district’s nutrition services program.
Cooper said the implementation of the Universal Breakfast program, which delivers free breakfast to all Berkeley Unified students in their classrooms, has played an important role in the increase.
Lunch is only up 2 percent in the same time frame but has increased 18 percent since 2006-2007. That’s 416,000 lunches in the new school year compared with 351,000 in 2006-2007.
Cooper has plans to start a campaign to promote school lunches and is working to make the menu more attractive to students by introducing more exotic entrees, such as Moroccan and tandoori chicken and locally grown brown rice.
District Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen, who started out as a sous chef under Cooper two years ago, said she was already in love with the new dining commons.
“Just look at this place,” said Christensen, who has worked at restaurants in San Francisco and Marin. “It’s breathtaking. You walk in here and realize that a lot of time and thought and craft went into it. You walk in to eat and you pause for a moment, and that matters. You can almost smell the wood.”
Designed by Baker Vilar Architects, the new dining commons may be less kitchen than cathedral, with its high vaulted ceilings, tall glass windows, soft earth tones and old fashioned hardwood furniture.
“You are not going to see these kind of facilities in too many public schools,” Christensen said. “We are the model to say to the rest of the country that this is the way it’s done.”
Christensen said the King Dining Commons project started five years ago with a lot of input from local culinary icon Alice Waters.
“She [worships] food, and that’s what we are trying to do here,” Christensen said.
Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation is also behind King’s Edible Schoolyard, which teaches students to grow and cook their own food.
King’s main academic building housed a cafeteria which was closed down in the 1980s, district officials said, leaving students with no place to eat lunch and paving the way for a new dining commons.
The district’s original plan, Christensen said, was to use the King Dining Commons to cook meals for the middle and high schools only.
“We were going to remodel the old central kitchen at Jefferson Elementary but realized that we didn’t have the staff to run two kitchens right now,” she said. “So we decided to see how everything works out of here [King] and put plans for Jefferson on hold.”
Christensen proudly showed off the sleek beverage station inside the cafeteria which will serve organic milk and water to students.
“We are doing away with water bottles because we don’t want landfills,” she said. “Some schools even sell children water bottles. Everything is wrong with that scenario.”
Other features in the $2.3 million equipment package include a blast chiller, a custom-made salad bar, an elaborate recycling station, steam jacket kettles for soups and sauces and walk-in freezers for dairy, meat and produce.
“You probably won’t see a blast chiller in too many public schools,” Christensen said smiling. “It cools down the food pretty fast. It can cool down 60 pounds of rice in 20 minutes and 50 pounds of chicken in 15 minutes. When you are feeding thousands everyday, something like this comes in handy.”
The garde manger—French for keeper of cold food—section helps to keep the bacteria at bay, Christensen said, by separating the meat preparation room from the vegetable sauces and salads.
“The thing is, salmonella spores can float all around,” she said. “This isolates bacteria and prevents cross contamination. In a district kitchen that’s really important.”