Teacher, There’s a Fly in My Arugula

Berkeley Unified School District, parent critics charge, is flunking in its effort to put healthy foods in campus cafeterias.

Talk about public-school lunches and watch Berkeley parent Ray Couture cringe.

“What they’re serving our kids is a crime,” says Couture, referring to the roughly 2,300 student meals that will be served daily at Berkeley’s public campuses once classes resume next week. “So I was one of the guys who called them on it. I was one of the guys who said, ‘You can’t go on killing our kids.'”

Today, five years after he and other well-intentioned parents urged the Berkeley Unified School District to do something about its student lunches, Couture is feeling saltier than ever. According to Couture and other members on the district’s Child Nutrition Advisory Committee (CNAC), Berkeley may be forced to abandon its nationally known organic food program due to a drastic decline in meal participation and what committee members consider fiscal mismanagement in the Food Services Department.

The main reason, it turns out, is that students really aren’t all that into fava beans. According to an annual report prepared by CNAC members, students ate 39,000 fewer meals last year — a whopping 33 percent drop from the year before — costing the district $246,000 in federal reimbursements. It seems the kids aren’t as gung ho on organics as their parents are, admits one former Food Services employee. Add to the mix the dwindling of a $1 million Food Services reserve over the past year, and committee members complain that the district’s highly touted but costly organic program appears headed straight for the compost bin.

The advisory committee’s report also claims some schools reduced the availability of organic salads and other healthy items, replacing them with cheaper, easier-to-manage junk food like corndogs and popsicles. These sudden changes in menu philosophy went unreported to the vigilant CNAC members, says Couture. “The organic program is a joke, a fraud,” he huffs.

Or is it? District Superintendent Michele Lawrence questions the accuracy of CNAC’s findings, but won’t comment on the specifics until the report is presented to the school board next month. Still, Lawrence says she’s unaware of any massive decline in meal participation, and she’s committed to keeping organics on campus, despite the district’s financial woes. (A processed lunch can cost as little as 65 cents, while an all-organic meal costs the district about $2.50.) Last year the district scrambled to cut $9 million from its budget, Lawrence says, but “that doesn’t mean we still can’t provide nutritious food. I don’t think just because you have a budget problem you can’t serve quality, healthy food.”

There’s little doubt that kids could use some smart food right about now. Recent studies show that the salty, fatty American diet, combined with a lack of exercise, has spawned a country of weak-hearted flabbies, many of them right here in California. According to a survey conducted by the state legislature, thirty percent of California’s kids are overweight. Such publicity, coupled with a bit of political grandstanding, has prompted school districts across the state to reconsider ties with snack-food vendors. In February, the Oakland Unified School District was among the first in the nation to ban vending machines, sodas, candy, and caffeinated drinks on school campuses, citing, among other things, classroom discipline issues following sugar-loaded lunch breaks. The district’s bold move could cost it a reported $800,000 in annual vending contracts and profits.

Berkeley schools haven’t been willing to go that far, but the district does have a rep for feeding its students unusually well. In 1995, renowned chef Alice Waters arrived at the district’s Jefferson Elementary and prepared lunch for the entire school using garden-grown veggies. That ushered in the Edible Schoolyard Program, where pint-sized students grow their own veggies on the playground, pick ’em, and deliver ’em to the cafeteria. This only whetted the appetites of middle- and high-school parents, who demanded finer cuisine for their kids, too. “This community has higher standards,” says superintendent Lawrence. “They expect more.”

Indeed. In 1997, Couture, who had a child entering Berkeley High, joined with other parents and complained at school board meetings about the poor quality of cafeteria grub. Unable to convince board members to adopt food standards beyond the USDA criteria, he enlisted the support of then-Assemblyman Tom Bates to give the movement some legitimacy. “Instead of being just an angry parent at a meeting, now they had to listen to me,” Couture says. The board promptly established a 24-member advisory committee including parents, teachers, and five students.

It only took about two weeks for the newly created CNAC to antagonize the school board. “There wasn’t anything advisory about them,” says one parent who stopped attending the committee’s meetings. The high pitch of hostility and ego, this parent says, was too much to bear: “Their goal became ‘Let’s direct Food Services,’ not ‘Let’s do our part and advise it.'”

Couture wanted the school board to immediately adopt requirements for food quality, but board members instead opted for a list of “nutritional goals.” Another target on CNAC’s list was Food Services Director Elsie Szeto, whom the committee members considered a foot-dragger when it came to implementing their organic dream. Szeto was known in the district as a financial tightwad who’d inherited a bankrupt Food Services department in 1995 and remarkably turned it around, accumulating an unprecedented $1 million reserve by 2000. She did it by finding cheaper vendors and selling meals to charter schools and the Emeryville School District. Szeto’s personal office resembled a wrecked storage room, former employees say, but she knew how to keep the department cash-rich, even with the pesky CNAC calling for the pricey organic option.

Rick Fuller, a former Food Services employee who worked under Szeto, says CNAC showed its muscle by routinely calling her out at meetings and serving up heavy doses of what-are-you-really-serving-our-kids accusations. Even so, organic foods were added under Szeto’s watch. By January 2001, Berkeley High was offering a variety of organic meals with vegetarian options, and four middle schools had started organic salad bars. To cover costs, Szeto continued selling the popular snack foods students craved.

But the new healthy items on the menus weren’t paying the bills at Berkeley High, Fuller says. In the preorganic era, he says, the school served two hundred kids daily and took in $550. Last year, about half that many ate lunch on campus, spending a total of just $225 per day. “Kids would rather go off campus to eat junk food,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”

There’s evidence to support that claim. According to an executive summary report prepared by the district’s Nutrition Department, buying meals on campus is way down. Breakfast participation was off 74 percent in the last fiscal year, and lunch sales were down 21 percent. “Thus,” the report reads, “for those students who are not free or reduced-[price] meal participants but vote with their dollars as paid customers, there has been a reduction of some 22,881 paid meals, or more than a one-third decline … “

Last year, Szeto was ousted from Food Services. The board suddenly created a new job description that required her to reapply; she lost out to Karen Candito, who has since become the reigning queen of CNAC’s ire. After Candito took over, she told the advisory committee that her top priority was upgrading the department’s computer systems, and then she’d deal with any food-program upgrades. Now, with school set to begin, members of CNAC are already concerned that Candito won’t make good on her promise, and that the cafeteria food will revert to low-cost, high-sodium treats. “As a district, we are dedicated to making organics work,” Candito says. “But it hasn’t always worked in a way that served our needs. Now we’re looking to regroup and reorganize our needs.” Candito says the organics program started with a helpful grant. Those funds have since run dry, she says.

By CNAC’s tally, the surplus built up by Szeto is also gone, spent by her successor on computer upgrades and higher salaries. The Food Services department, according to the committee’s report, is now running a $160,000 deficit, and thus has no money left to expand the availability of quality munchables. “We hoped they would hire someone more in line with our values,” says Berkeley parent Yolanda Huang, a CNAC member. Huang says her child noticed a change in the school’s salad bar last year when arugula lettuce was replaced with the iceberg variety. The enticing croutons were also pulled. “You have to make it pleasing for the kids,” Huang says. “I mean, my kid won’t eat a salad without croutons.”

Despite the CNAC report’s claims that organic may be unsupportable in the future, superintendent Lawrence says the district is currently searching for new, less-expensive organic vendors. Still, some parents fear lunches at Berkeley schools will return to the goulash of a previous era. It’s a thought parent Couture can’t stomach. “I’ve been making my kids’ lunch for five years,” he admits. “I don’t let them eat what they’re serving at the school.”

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