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Berkeley Schools May Go Organic

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who says there’s no such thing as a pesticide-free lunch?

The school board in Berkeley, Northern California’s progressive stronghold, is expected to vote resoundingly today in favor of stocking school cafeterias with organic food--everything from pesticide-free carrot sticks to milk certified clean of bovine growth hormone.

If the board approves the broad food philosophy before it--including a mandate for an organic garden at every school--the district will probably become the most progressive in the nation in weaving chemical-free offerings into the cafeteria diet of pizza and hot dogs.

“That’s Berkeley--food and revolution,” said Sibella Kraus, executive director of the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture and a member of the committee that helped craft the food policy. “Berkeley has continued to be a breeding ground for . . . people who think progressively about both food and politics.”

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Far more progressively than most of the nation. Although the Berkeley effort was inspired in part by farmers market salad bars at some Santa Monica campuses, widespread access to chemical-free foods in school cafeterias is “certainly not a trend,” said Suzanne Rigby, director of nutrition and education at the American School Food Service Assn.

“In fact, I honestly do not know of any school system that has done this,” Rigby said.

The biggest hurdle is cost, with availability a close second. But Berkeley is close to year-round organic farms in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties, so fresh food is easier to find during winter months than it is, say, in Fargo, N.D. Still, some organic produce can cost as much as 50% more than its conventionally grown counterparts, no matter how nearby it is.

The very urban Berkeley district hopes to eventually defray some of the added expense of pesticide-free foods by growing 25% of the produce for its 9,500 children on the campuses themselves. Currently, 11 of the district’s 16 schools have organic gardens, which are used mainly for teaching, not wholesale food production.

“We know that foods are linked to all kinds of health issues,” said Yolanda Huang, a parent volunteer who started a middle-school garden seven years ago and has been involved in the food policy effort. “We know that Americans are overweight. . . . The effort is to get fruits and vegetables into kids.”

Not wanting to starve notoriously picky children, the district will continue to make other foods available in cafeterias, including turkey hot dogs and hamburgers, burritos and the vegetarian dishes that have been served at every school for the past year.

The food policy before the school board tonight has as its core an “educational mission . . . to improve the health of the entire community by teaching students and families ways to establish and maintain lifelong healthy eating habits.”

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That mission will be accomplished in part through nutrition education, “garden experiences,” and the very food served at breakfast and lunch and in after-school programs.

Under the proposed policy, “organic” refers to food that is grown pesticide-free, herbicide-free and without synthetic fertilizers whenever possible, said Tom Bates, a former state assemblyman who is spearheading the school food effort. The district also wants to “eliminate potentially harmful food additives and processes, such as bovine growth hormones, irradiation and genetically modified foods,” according to the plan.

The district plans to start small the first year and expand soon after. When school begins next month, four schools will have salad bars stocked with organically grown lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, celery, apples, oranges and kiwi fruit. They will also offer bread donated by a local company, baked with organic whole-wheat flour.

In addition, nine after-school snack programs will offer a variety of organic fruits and other products from the burgeoning natural foods industry. Among them will be rice cakes and chips made from organic corn, fresh-ground pinto beans and long-grain brown rice.

The district plans no big buys of exotic offerings--yet.

“All of these things are being tested on the kids to see what the kids like,” Bates said. “There’s a question of preference and a question of cost and reliability. We’ve got to be able to make sure we can get it.”

The district plans to contract with a San Francisco firm called Veritable Vegetable for 700 pieces of organic fruit a day--for starters--to stock the snack program. Sara Desmond, a company purchaser, acknowledges that organic goods can be much more expensive than traditional fruits and vegetables, although some organics are sold at lower or comparable prices.

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But the district will probably be able to cut costs by purchasing smaller pieces of fruit--sizes that children love and grocery stores hate. Lower-grade produce that often goes to processors can also be used for fruit salads or cut up for the salad bar.

Berkeley may be a bit further along in sprucing up the scorned school lunch menu, but in the last several years there have been efforts nationally to improve campus nutrition. Federal regulations approved in 1995 call for school lunches that meet one-third of the recommended daily allowances for key items such as calories, carbohydrates, iron and calcium.

Lower fat is another key. In fact, in the last year, the California Prune Board has been pushing what it calls the Quik ‘n’ Juicy--a hamburger patty spiked with prune puree that can be cooked at higher, safer temperatures, cuts fat content and remains moist.

The prune patties are being used in a small number of school districts in four states, including California. “You want your kids to be safe, and you want them to eat things that are nutritious for them,” said Peggy Castaldi, the prune board’s director of marketing. “We’re exploring putting it in veggie burgers.”

The school district effort is part of the Berkeley Food Systems Project of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit organization that received a three-year, $175,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help start the district’s gardens and establish a food policy for the city of Berkeley.

The district’s plan is one component of the overall effort, which is designed to improve delivery of food to the city, keep and enhance farmers markets, start more community gardens and bring fresh produce to parts of the community that don’t ordinarily have them.

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Although schools Supt. Jack McLaughlin supports the over-arching view, his primary goal is to improve the lives of his students. And he thinks organic food is one way to do that.

“We want our students to be the very best in academics, best in reading, best in math,” McLaughlin said. “So we should have the healthiest food.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Coming Clean

A few of the items likely to be available soon on the Berkeley schools’ organic menu. Organically grown food is typically produced without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizer.

After-school snack program

* Tortilla chips, made of organic blue corn.

* Rice cakes, made with organically grown rice.

* Milk, free of bovine growth hormone.

* Apples, oranges and carrots, largely from organic farms.

* All-natural pinta chips, made with yellow corn, freshly ground pinto beans and long grain brown rice.

Lunchtime Salad Bars

* Lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, celery and radishes grown without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizer in campus gardens or by farms in the region.

* Apples, oranges and kiwi fruit purchased from organic farms.

* Whole wheat bread made with organic flour.

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