The Saga of Improving School Food in Berkeley
Sometime around 1997, as I began my retirement from the State Legislature, Ray Couture, a political acquaintance and parent of a Berkeley student, called me out of the blue. He started the conversation with what can fairly be called a “rant” about the food in Berkeley public schools. He was furious and wanted my help.
Shortly thereafter, my friend Jack McLaughlin, the Berkeley School Superintendent, called. He said he had just gotten off the phone with a guy named Ray who was really angry about school food and who kept mentioning my name. Jack asked if I would attend a meeting with Ray and a group of parents and community members who were interested in discussing the food situation. “They are very upset, but I can’t tell what they want,” he said. I agreed, and Jack arranged the meeting.
The meeting included Ray Couture, Zenobia Barlow, Eric Weaver, Joy Moore, Bebo Thurman, the head of the school’s cafeteria, and several other parents. The parents said the food was unhealthy—loaded with salt and fat, and declared that their kids had “eaten their last corndog.” The group met about four times and brainstormed ideas about how we might improve the school food.
Zenobia, who was the CEO of a local non-profit, the Center for Ecoliteracy1, had heard that the US Department of Agriculture had a new nutrition grant program for innovative food programs. With our encouragement, she applied, using the ideas we had developed.
The Center for Ecoliteracy was awarded a two-year grant and Zenobia asked me to direct the program. At the time I was teaching a class at Cal and could only commit to working half time. Because of the scope of the work I would need to hire other people. Also, I wanted the Project to have its own office.
I had doubts that she would go for all that extra expense but Zenobia said ok. The grant didn’t cover the other expenses, but her foundation made up the difference. (I learned a lesson from the whole experience: There is no such thing as a half time job— they always end up being full time with half time pay).
I asked Joy Moore, an African-American school food volunteer, Amy Liu, an environmental activist, Jered Lawson, CSA organizer, and Yolanda Wong, a parent and lawyer, to join my staff. They turn out to be a great team, hardworking and really interested in making the Project work.
We set up our office at the corner of Channing and Shattuck. Our plan was to begin by establishing school gardens in every school. At the time, there were gardens at Le Conte (now Sylvia Mendez) and at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. That left ten elementary, two middle schools, and two high schools. We had our work cut out for us.
The King Middle School garden was known as the Edible Schoolyard. It was the brainchild of Alice Waters: a one-acre organic garden where students participated in all aspects of growing, harvesting, and preparing produce. The students combined hands-on experience and classroom learning (biology, chemistry, etc.) in the study of growing, cooking and eating food.
Establishing gardens in the schools depended on the school size and was either not a problem or a major challenge. Each school principal had to dedicate the land for the new garden and, in addition, develop a curriculum for teaching nutrition and linking it to the garden.
At the same time, we were beginning to set up organic salad bars in the middle and elementary schools. They turned out to be a great hit with both students and staff. It was an immediate improvement. Over time we were able to get organic milk, fresh fruit and vegetables served daily along with organic bread and rolls. In addition, we started a breakfast program for all K-5 students. They would be given their food in breakfast bags with milk paid for by the Federal Title 1 program.
The program went relatively smoothly. Our team really did a great job getting the gardens up and running. Alice Waters said she was “surprised to wake up one morning and all these school gardens had appeared.” If it was only that easy.
Another major problem was food preparation. All food was made at the central cafeteria, which was really outdated and needed to be replaced. Fortunately, the School District was considering a new maintenance bond issue. Led by Eric Weaver, we lobbied really hard to include new cafeterias in the bond. We had trouble initially getting the campaign committee to include the cafeteria until an election poll found out it was very popular. It went to the voters and was approved. We got a new central cafeteria. Another major step forward.
Jack McLaughlin was happy with the results but concerned about the future. He said “Tom, you and I are going to be gone, we need to put in place a ‘Food Policy’ that will remain and ensure future meals remain healthy.” With the help of the parent committee, the School District wrote an excellent school food policy (see http://www.schoollunchinitiative.org/downloads/BUSD-Wellness-Policy.pdf).
Today, the Berkeley public schools continue to struggle to provide nutritious food and a garden experience for their students. On balance, however, it is ahead of many public schools in America, and was certainly one of the “early adopters.”
In an adequately funded education system, every school would look like and eat like King Middle School.
 The Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley’s David Brower Center continues to provide many food-related programs. Their website is ecoliteracy.org.