By guest blogger Ed Bruske from The Slow Cook
One school serves chicken nuggets, frozen in a distant factory and reheated for a few minutes in the oven. Another school prepares chicken on the bone, brined and roasted from its raw state in an eight-day process. One school feeds 5-year-olds up to 15 teaspoons of sugar in the morning: Apple Jacks cereal, strawberry milk, orange juice, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams. Another makes breakfast more like camping out: a simple packet of Nature’s Path Oaty Bites, an apple, a container of plain milk.
Believe it or not, these two public schools exist in the same country, even though their methods of feeding children seem worlds apart. The school that serves industrially processed chicken nuggets and sugar for breakfast happens to be the elementary school my 10-year-old daughter attends here in the District of Columbia. The other school, with the brined chicken and organic morning meal, is located in Berkeley, CA, where I spent a week as a “lunch lady” to see how the other half lives.
Until a few months ago, I was just a former newspaper reporter who liked to compost and grow his family’s food in an urban kitchen garden about a mile from the White House. I started a blog—The Slow Cook—to record my gardening adventures, never suspecting I would get caught up in the war over school food as an investigative journalist.
One day I was sitting in a meeting with the principal and assistant principal at my daughter’s school, talking about building a garden there, when someone mentioned that the newly renovated school building had a commercial-grade kitchen where meals were being “fresh-cooked.”
To see food being cooked from scratch at school: That, I thought, would make a great story for my blog. I got permission to observe for a week. What I saw took my breath away, but not in a good way. “Fresh-cooked,” it turned out, meant that instead of importing finished meals from a suburban factory, DC schools now were simply re-heating processed foods that arrived frozen from all over the country.
Would you believe “scrambled eggs” that have been precooked with a list of additives in Minnesota, frozen, then reheated in a steamer? The kitchen manager told me she liked to stir shredded cheddar cheese into the eggs to add flavor. Otherwise, there wasn’t much flavor to speak of.
I quickly learned that minimal skill or equipment is needed to feed 300 kids at school every day. The most important tool in school kitchens these days is a box cutter, to open all those cardboard containers the frozen meal components arrive in every week. That’s the “fresh-cooked” regime, according to the D.C. Public Schools contracted food provider, Chartwells.
Apparently, this was the first time a journalist had spent significant time in a modern school kitchen, because the series of blog posts I wrote created something of a sensation. I was hooked as well. After my week in the kitchen, I started showing up in the cafeteria every day with my camera to document what the kids were eating. Sometimes my blood boiled, as when I saw kids exiting the food line with a lunch consisting of reheated potato wedges, a bag of Sun Chips, and strawberry milk.
Would you be surprised to learn that, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that govern the federally subsidized school meals program, that lunch is perfectly legal? Kids are only required to select three of five offered items to constitute a “meal.” The potato wedges qualify as a vegetable, the Sun Chips as a grain, and the milk—well, milk is its own category. It’s always offered.
Readers were so scandalized by what I was writing about school meals in the nation’s capital—practically within view of the White House where Michelle Obama had launched her antiobesity campaign—they begged me to find a school district that was serving kids real food. Ann Cooper, the famed “renegade lunch lady,” set me up with a week in the central school kitchen in Berkeley. That’s where Alice Waters had hired Cooper to switch Berkeley schools from the same kind of industrially processed convenience foods my daughter’s friends are eating to meals cooked from scratch.
For part 2 of A National Look at School Lunches, check Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen next week.