While exploring The Slow Cook site, I started reading about Ed Bruske's experience at the Berkeley Schools central kitchen. We live all of 15 minutes from Berkeley which made it even more interesting for me. I wanted to share a section from the story that illustrates the way I feel we should approach food and one of the reasons why I started Medium Food Mama.
...Why go to all that trouble?
Indeed, it was precisely this question that I came to Berkeley to answer, because it was here that Alice Waters, the fairy godmother of cooking fresh food from local, seasonal ingredients, made her imprint on the public school cafeteria. Her influence continues to reverberate around the country inspiring school districts, farm to school programs, even first lady and White House gardener-in-chief Michelle Obama.
But in case you thought the Berkeley school menu was just a copy of the one at Waters’ internationally famous restaurant–Chez Panisse–located just a few blocks from the central school kitchen, you need to check those inclinations fast. As I quickly learned, kid preferences exert an enormous influence even in schools where food is fresh-cooked, because Berkeley schools still depend on subsidies from the federal government. Like every other school in the federal meals program, they need to “sell” as much of that epic chicken as possible. Each student who qualifies for a free lunch and takes the chicken earns the school district a $2.68 payment from Uncle Sam.
Thus, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School you will see pizza on the menu twice a week, Monday and Friday. Pizza is, hands down, the favorite food of school children nationwide. In most schools, kids get a reheated frozen pizza made in a factory with a ton of industrial additives. In Berkeley the pizza is made in the central kitchen using a whole wheat crust, real mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce made with freshly chopped onion, celery and carrots. And instead of being topped with frozen, factory-made pepperoni, as in my daughter’s school in D.C., here it’s fixed with turkey sausage also made from scratch using whole turkey and seasonings. One variety of Berkeley pizza even comes with pesto.
Nachos are served every Friday. But they are not the ones you see at other schools–fried chips doused with processed orange cheese. The Berkeley nachos start with baked corn chips, but forget about the Dayglo cheese. Instead there’s a meat mix of beef, turkey and soy protein, accompanied by a side of freshly cooked brown rice and re-fried beans. Tacos, also with brown rice and beans, are served every Monday as an alternative to the pizza. And there’s plenty of pasta to be eaten over the course of a week, but Berkeley pasta involves freshly grated cheeses and sauces that start with home-made vegetable stock, just like in a first-class restaurant.
Alice Waters might cringe at the way her food rules have been bent to accommodate juvenile tastes. But executive chef Bonnie Christensen says her menu addresses the main concern of Berkeley parents who lobbied for the change. They were appalled by the frozen processed foods being served in school loaded with fat, salt and sugar. They did not want their children exposed to corporate, brand-name products laced with additives. They wanted their children to learn to eat fresh-cooked meals.
Choosing to make food from scratch when you can and with better ingredients in conjunction with taking the time to find the "better" convenience items is the essence of medium food. It is especially important for young children to be accustomed to and prefer the real food versions of chicken nuggets, pizza, mac and cheese, etc. If a school district that has to feed 2,350 children five days a week can find the happy medium, I think the average family can too.