The humble school lunch is about to turn into food for thought under an ambitious plan by the Berkeley, Calif., Unified School District to bring organic fare to cafeteria tables.

The new policy adopted by the Berkeley school board hopes to revolutionize lunch and reshape the way students think about food by encouraging them to not only eat their veggies, but grow them, too.

“We want the cafeteria to be a learning experience,” said Tom Bates, a former state assemblyman who now heads the Berkeley Food Systems Project, which has been working with the district on its new food policy.

The organic dynamic stems from school Superintendent Jack McLaughlin’s desire to do something about school lunches and student health, says district spokeswoman Karen Sarlo.

“School lunches are horrible, not only in our school district,” Sarlo said. “Would it cost that much more to make the food good and fresh?”

While many schools are trying to get more fresh fruit and vegetables on to their menus, Berkeley’s comprehensive approach seems fairly unique, said U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Susan Acker.

Berkeley already has experience in consumption as curriculum.

Under the Edible Schoolyard program started by chef Alice Waters, who created the California cuisine craze at Berkeley’s renowned Chez Panisse restaurant, students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School work in a school garden and kitchen.

The new policy will start more school gardens and incorporate eating, gardening, and nutrition into the curriculum. A garden planning session, for instance, might be an opportunity for a math exercise calculating the area of vegetable plots.

Teachers also will get an education in eating, with regular training on nutrition and agriculture.

Although it is far-reaching, Berkeley’s new plan is couched in terms of goals rather than edicts, phasing in organic food as it becomes available. Eventually, the district hopes to have an all-natural menu where even the milk comes from cows not injected with bovine growth hormones.

One immediate obstacle is price. Organic food generally is more expensive than conventionally grown produce, in some cases quite a bit more, but the school will have to work with fixed USDA lunch reimbursement rates. Bates said costs can be kept down by dealing with local growers and buying in bulk.

Another problem will be persuading the Twinkie generation to swallow their grandparents’ axiom of an apple—and more—a day.

Cameron Carr-Johnson, 18, a recent graduate of Berkeley High, ran taste tests this summer on organic foods being considered for the school cafeteria and found tasters went for “all the sweets, basically.” He thinks organic lunches are a great idea, but predicts other students may take more convincing.

School officials will focus on younger students on the theory that they may be more open to giving up high-fat, high-sugar snacks.

Bruce Ames, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Environmental Health Science Center, applauds the effort to get students more interested in growing and eating fruits and vegetables.

But he says there’s no evidence that traces of pesticide residue are a serious health hazard, and scaring people off conventionally grown produce could be dangerous.

“If there’s something foolish, Berkeley does it first,” he said with a chuckle.


Berkeley Unified School District, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, CA 94704; phone (510) 644-6147, web