This I Believe

Ann - Moss Beach, California
Entered on November 6, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
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This I Believe: That Every Child in America Deserves a Delicious/Nutritious Lunch at School

I am such an unlikely advocate for school meal reform — for most of my 30 years as a chef and cook I never cooked for kids. As the chef of a white tablecloth restaurant, one of my most dreaded events was the waiter or host who walked in to the kitchen at 8pm on a Sat night to tell me a six top with four hungry screaming children was just sat.

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 most memorable thing about all of that “stuff” was that it came frozen in plastic bags, was put in the ovens to be heated in the plastic bags, kept warm in the plastic bags and served to the children in those same plastic bags. Inquiring minds might wonder where the chemicals in the plastic goes after all that time and temperature change – to my mind – it’s probably into our children.

Just a year later and what we serve our 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. A year later – all of our food is fresh and made from scratch – we cook for our children – everyday.

Yesterday when I was at one of the elementary schools I watched the 3rd and 4th graders eating fresh made salads from the salad bar. I watched with delight as they ate the enchiladas made by a small local company and I watched 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” – their take on a garden burrito – herbs and flowers wrapped in sorrel leaves. It all made me realize that I’m doing the most important work of my life – changing these children’s relationship to food – helping them to understand the symbiotic relationship between food – dirt – their health and the health of the planet.

And in the end – if I’m successful here – perhaps — just perhaps – this will be a model that can be utilized nation wise and if so – perhaps – just perhaps we’ll save all of our children and the planet as well.