A close friend visited over the weekend, bringing home the realities of the recent hike in food costs. A third-year law student, she is within arm’s reach of achieving a long-held dream — and a lucrative career, as well. But for now, she is a poor college student. So much so that she professed to me that she stopped buying bread when it hit $2.50 a loaf. “I don’t need to eat sandwiches,” she said.
Despite soaring food prices, school district food service departments don’t have a choice in what they can and can’t offer. Regulated by state and federal guidelines, child nutrition programs have to provide so many calories, adhere to certain rules and procedures, and appeal to student tastes. And with childhood obesity becoming a targeted issue, also districts must ensure meals are healthy and nutritious.
Remarkably, some districts aren’t just surviving, they are thriving. Berkeley Unified School District in California is one such example. Nearly three years ago, the school district received a grant that allowed them to hire a chef who revamped what comes out (and in) all of the district’s 16 schools.
Some of their accomplishments:
The central kitchen serves more than 5000 meals daily, utilizing fresh whole produce, instead of frozen, processed vegetables.
Each school hosts a salad bar, which features seasonal fruits and vegetables — nearly a third of which is organic and locally grown.
Three-quarters of the schools employ a buffet service, reducing the need for plastic-wrapped disposable trays.
All meals are free of trans fat and high fructose corn syrup.
All kitchens compost and recycle.
But Berkeley has its challenges, too. The central kitchen has no stove or walk-in refrigerator, in fact, most of the site-based kitchens are antiquated. Many of the kitchen staff had to be trained to know how to handle fresh, unprocessed food; Many of them had never even held a knife. And of course, the biggest obstacle is the lack of funding, which when all is said and done, amounts to 80 cents to purchase food. What kind of meal can you possibly provide at that price?
Berkeley, not surprisingly, is trying to revolutionize its food services and has made great gains. But it can’t continue, nor can any other school district, unless the realities of today (rising food, gas, and labor costs, to name a few) are addressed.
Make to visit ASBJ.com to read our package of articles on school food nutrition.
Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor