Lunch Love Community and the Story of Berkeley’s School Lunch Initiative

New film series highlights the untold stories of the city's landmark program.

First, a disclaimer of sorts: Lunch Love Community is not about Alice Waters. Of course, you can’t make a film about Berkeley’s landmark School Lunch Initiative without recognizing the woman who was a considerable personal, political, and economic force behind its development. But mostly, the multi-part film project focuses on the aspects of the initiative that haven’t yet been featured in Oprah segments or breathless magazine profiles. It’s easy to make a symbol of Waters, but as filmmaker Sophie Constantinou tells it, the movement is bigger and broader and more complex than the familiar narrative. That’s precisely what she and co-filmmaker Helen De Michiel intended to illuminate with their series of short films.

“This is about the community rather than the visionary,” Constantinou said. “That isn’t to say her input hasn’t been huge, but we’re not focusing on that because that’s the story we’ve all been told …. The actual grassroots movement that made this thing happen, made Berkeley a landmark for the nation, doesn’t get much attention. The community and the civic engagement is the untold story here — the unsung heroes.”

In the late-1990s, a group of parents, policymakers, chefs, and educators, disappointed by the processed foods kids were being served in school, began formulating what would eventually become the first school-lunch program of its kind: free or at least very cheap food at every school, all nutritionally dense and largely organic, and buttressed by science and health curricula in the classroom. “It was a total overhaul of a public institution,” Constantinou said. “It was a school lunch, but it was also curriculum, and it was a pretty radical idea.” What began as a simple vision has become an emblem for the wider food-justice movement, but it was never that simple: Over the years, countless battles have been waged and questions asked. The idea’s evolution, De Michiel said, has been far from linear.

“It’s really a mosaic of stories, instead of something with one particular hero or heroine,” she said. So instead of forcing a single narrative out of all these interlocking stories, De Martin and Constantinou made a series of vignettes, all about five or ten minutes long and focusing on one particular element of the story. They were released online as rippable, clippable, shareable short films. “Flamin’ Hot” explores middle-schoolers’ affinity for the eponymous Cheetos variety and asks how much schools can reasonably expect to change kids’ habits; “The Labor of Lunch” goes behind the scenes in the school district’s central kitchen. Other clips explain the initiative’s history and ask whether the program is replicable beyond Berkeley.

Ultimately, these vignettes will be fused into a longer documentary, but in the meantime, the concept is to let them spread the story of Berkeley’s school lunches far and wide. “This is the kind of thing filmmakers usually do after a long-form film is made,” De Michel said. “But this is a different process. The form of the webisodes is really about the function, which is to try and activate communities around changing food.”

As Constantinou put it, the point is that “you don’t need a celebrity. You don’t need an Alice Waters to do this.”

Lunch Love Community will have its cinema premiere on Sunday, February 13, at Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley), as part of a special event that includes a panel discussion with the filmmakers and various academics and activists. 2:30 p.m., $5.50-$9.50.


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