I never cooked for kids, as the chef of a white table-cloth restaurant. One of my worst fears was when a waiter or host walked in to the kitchen at 8:00 PM on a Saturday to tell me that they just sat a six top with four hungry screaming children.
I never cooked for kids, as the chef of a white table-cloth restaurant. One of my worst fears was when a waiter or host walked in to the kitchen at 8:00 PM on a Saturday to tell me that they just sat a six top with four hungry screaming children. My circuitous route from celebrated chef to renegade lunch lady landed me as the Director of Berkeley Unified School District just over a year ago—and I’ll never forget the food I saw being served on my first day of school. Let me rephrase that—I’ll never forget the “stuff” that was being served—food it was not. In all my decades as a cook and chef, I had never seen stuff like this. Rice frozen in a bag served with frozen vegetables, frozen fried fake chicken parts and some gloppy sauce with fried noodle things on top—the item was called Asian Orange Chicken. Other items that were served included frozen “grilled” cheese sandwiches, frozen corn dogs, frozen pizza pockets and of course the ubiquitous frozen burritos with a laundry list of ingredients a mile long. The worst thing was that the food came frozen in plastic bags, was put in the ovens to be heated in those bags, kept warm in those bags and served to the children in those bags. You might wonder where the chemicals in the plastic go after all that time and temperature change—it goes into our children. Now, a year after starting my work in Berkeley, what we serve the children has dramatically changed. We serve fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal. We have salad bars in all of our schools. And all that frozen pre-packed stuff is gone—banished from our children’s plates. After just a year, all of our food is fresh and made from scratch—we cook for the children every day. Yesterday, when I was at one of the elementary schools, I watched the third and fourth graders eating fresh made salads from the salad bar. I was delighted as they ate the enchiladas made by a small local company and as they ate the Three Sister’s Stew, which they also cooked in their cooking classes. After lunch I went to the garden where the students made me a “weedo”—garden burrito of herbs and flowers wrapped in sorrel leaves. I realized that I’m doing the most important work of my life—changing these children’s relationship to food by helping them understand the symbiotic relationship between food and dirt—between their health and the health of the planet. This is important to me because corporate America has placed profit over the health of our children. It ought to be a birthright in our country that every child, every day has delicious and healthy food in school. There is nothing more vital to all of us and our future than the health of our children. In the end—if I’m successful—perhaps, just perhaps, this will be a model that can be utilized nationwide. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll save all of our children and the planet as well.
Written in 2006