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California and the West

It's Not Your Ordinary High School Lunch

Nutrition: Some Bay Area campuses have come a long way from frozen or precooked meals. Choices may range from organic salads to sushi.

March 04, 2001|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BERKELEY — Lunch at Berkeley High School is delivered by a guy on a recumbent bike. His flatbed holds organic salads, hand-tossed pizzas, savory burritos, fresh-pressed apple juice, hormone-free chicken and a chow mein made with fresh vegetables from the local farmer's market.

It's gourmet fare from local restaurants, about as far as you can get from corn dogs and chicken fingers without a waiter and a wine list.

"It was a concerted effort by the school, students and community to change the quality of the food students eat," said Frank Lynch, principal of Berkeley High. "I think any school would welcome this kind of change."

He's right and they have. The move away from canned, frozen and prefab school food is taking off throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Berkeley High's organic lunch program was approved by the school board in late 1999, and was followed by a period of taste testing. Five restaurants now deliver to the school, and several more are looking at ways to make participation profitable. Everyone involved with the program agreed that schools need to offer variety to make campus lunch programs a success.

"Kids are used to having a lot of options," said Alva Spence, a food service consultant to the Palo Alto Unified School District. "They want to have a Jamba Juice or an In-N-Out burger or Togos. They want what they are used to at home, and we've come to rely on takeout food and dining out."

The options have increased at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, where children can choose from two types of sushi: a veggie roll with avocado, carrots and cucumber wrapped in nori seaweed and an avocado and artificial crab roll. Both come with pickled ginger, tamari and wasabi. Chopsticks are optional.

In Davenport, a tiny community near Santa Cruz, students at Pacific Elementary cook breakfast and lunch in the food lab as part of their curriculum. At least some of the food in each meal comes from the school's organic garden.

At Berkeley's Martin Luther King Elementary School there's the Edible Schoolyard, an organic garden in a former parking lot. Children learn the connections between growing, harvesting and cooking food, said Alice Waters, the restaurateur who spearheaded the project. Waters' restaurant, Chez Panisse, is considered ground zero for the simple, fresh and organic style of cooking now known as California cuisine.

"Kids aren't eating with their families any more," Waters said. "They're not learning how to communicate with each other at the table. That's where we pass on the 'Please pass the peas. What did you do today?' This is what's happening in the world today."

Before students concentrate on academics, they should learn how to be members of a community, Waters said.

"How to feed themselves, how to take care of the land from which they are fed--to me that's more important than reading, writing and arithmetic," she said. "This should come before that, and that's what we're doing with the Edible Schoolyard."

Waters also had a hand in Berkeley High School's organic food launch. Last month, she trucked in a barbecue grill and made organic pork tacos.

Waters drew a sizable crowd eager to sample her famous cuisine. She plans a repeat visit, but campus lunch organizers agree that it's up to them to build a following for the fledgling program.

It will be a challenge. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged a number of buildings on the 17-acre campus and the school's cafeteria remains red-tagged.

Students became accustomed to strolling to nearby Shattuck Avenue, a main drag that borders the UC Berkeley campus. Packed with restaurants, Shattuck Avenue offers countless options.

Getting students to stay on campus takes, not just appealing food, but a strong advertising campaign.

"It started kind of slow," Mary Carter, a food service worker, said of the campus lunch program. "But then, as the kids saw the ads, saw their friends eating here, it got better. I think we sell a little more each week."

Of Berkeley High's 3,400 students, about 200 eat each day at the food court. Students pay $3 per meal; faculty members pay $4. Some students say the portions are too small. Others complain about the procedures.

'Too complicated," said 17-year-old Mack Rankin, a senior. "I mean, I went in there once and I wanted to get seconds, and I had to wait in line all over again to buy a ticket. Not for me."

Michele Condon, 18, also a senior, recently became a vegetarian. The veggie chow mein is fine, she said, but you can't eat it every day. "Until they come up with more kinds of vegetarian food, I'm going off campus," she said.

Sophomores Danielle Youngblood, Dana Johnson and Kayle Lewis, members of the school Leadership Committee, which helped choose the five restaurants, try to make the Food Court a habit.

"It's a really cool program and it's good for the school," Youngblood said. "I think it'll get more people coming to the snack bar, 'cause the food is so good."

For low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the food court offers a bit of dignity. "They just get a ticket like everyone else," Johnson said. "It's good because they're not feeling all different from everyone else. And the food is so good."

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