The Tiffin Tin

What\’s in your lunchbox?

The Renegade Lunch Lady Feeds Berkeley

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I’m fascinated by utopian experiments. I love the way they inevitably run up against the real world, and either fail miserably or morph into something everyone’s always surprised ever started out as an experiment because it seems so, well, obvious. I’m also a big fan of people who are not afraid to try to fix big problems, like childhood obesity. So a big utopian project like the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative has gotten my full attention. (In case you’re wondering, the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative is designed to wipe out obesity by feeding Berkeley’s children delicious, nutritious, inspiring food. Locally grown food. Organic food. Unprocessed food made by local people. Every day. For lunch. And also in some schools for breakfast.)

Tiniest Tiffin is in the second grade in a Berkeley public school. This is the first Initiative he’s been an official part of. Last Friday, I found, stuffed in the bottom of his backpack THE most beautiful school lunch calendar I’ve ever seen in my life. Usually, the school lunch calendar is printed on a piece of colored paper and you get a new one every month. I stick it on the fridge, and then forget about it. He sometimes eats school lunch, when we’re in an emergency situation. But not often. It’s not the best food.

This calendar signals just how different things are about to be around here. For one thing, it’s a yearly calendar. The kind you pay good money for. Each month features a nice photograph or drawing of a fruit or vegetable with a little recipe to the side. The recipes aren’t complicated. Each day of the school week has a clear, simple menu for school lunch. The bottom of the calendar shows you the two week breakfast cycle. I almost cried, it was so clearly the work of someone who knows what they’re doing, cares about food, and cares about children.

That someone is a woman named Ann Cooper who is often referred to as the Renegade Lunch Lady. A week or so ago, while I was looking for some information about school lunches, I ran across her website. And then I pre-ordered her book, Lunch Lessons. And then, a few days later, my husband looked up from the New Yorker (the September 4 Education Issue which, alas, I can’t find online) and said, “Honey, did you know they’ve got Tiniest Tiffin’s school in here?” (Obviously, his name isn’t Tiniest Tiffin. But he’d be horrified to be identified by name, so we’ll have to go with that nickname until something better comes along.)

Then and there, I asked Tiniest Tiffin if he’d like to eat cafeteria lunch a few times a week. He liked this idea. The food sounds good. Did I mention it costs just $3 a pop if you don’t qualify for school lunch (and nothing if, as about 75% of the kids at his school do, you qualify)? Lots of his friends eat school lunch, so he likes being in line for lunch with them.

Tiniest Tiffin’s elementary school has, for the past year, been involved in a breakfast program that’s funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation, which also funds part of the School Lunch Initiative. Some things about these school breakfasts are great and make me hopeful about the lunches to come:

* the breakfast food’s lovely, organic, and made locally. Many mornings, I find myself envying the children their scones, fruit and milk.The children have gotten used to breakfast pizza, and it’s available to everybody, for free, no questions asked about family income. Everyone eats together.

Some things about it are not so great:

*feeding children breakfast first thing in the morning, in a school where teachers would like to swing into action in the classroom first thing in the morning, is, quite rightly, something the teachers have trouble embracing.

*The cafeteria where breakfast is served is crowded and loud.

*The children are not eating their breakfasts in a calm atmosphere. Some children are eating two breakfasts: one at school and one at home. If the idea is to combat obesity, that’s not so good.

*The breakfast program was introduced without really consulting the teachers, parents or children. That is never a good thing. I’m not sure why there was so little consulation, but it makes people reluctant to own it and make it work. Nevertheless, it is working if, by working, you mean that children are eating a healthy, nutritious breakfast every morning.

Here are a few things I can see the Renegade Lunch Lady might want to think about. Although, to tell you the truth, she’s got enough on her plates (there are many thousands of children in the Berkeley Unified School District she needs to feed tomorrow). I’m giving her some slack. But I’ve still got some ideas:

* Parent education. Children at my son’s school are educated about eating in a variety of creative ways. There’s a school garden, where they learn where food comes from. They are encouraged to try new things and they do. There’s a cooking program, where they learn about food preparation and nutrition. And then there’s the food itself, served by the school, and entirely consistent with these principles. But what about the lunchables, the doritos, the sodas, the candy, the cookies? Where are these coming from? Well, they’re coming from the children’s homes. Parents who pack lunches are not being inspired – they’re not even being approached- about how to pack a proper lunch. This is another piece of the puzzle. I’m sure it’s been thought of, and maybe it’s going to be phase three or something. i’ll have my eye out for it.
* Teacher education. I mentioned this earlier. The teachers are expected to hand out those breakfasts every morning and to give up about twenty minutes of precious instructional time while they do it. They’re important partners. But they don’t feel like partners. How about showing them some love for what they’re doing? Educating them about what’s so important about the breakfast (and lunch) project? How about serving them lovely lunches or breakfasts to sweeten the deal? The project will work if parents and teachers embrace it. People embrace things that make them feel good. Somebody needs to think about that.
* The cafeteria atmosphere. I hate eating at picnic tables. They’re crowded, you feel trapped, and the food is hard to access. Why should children have to eat like that? How can you enjoy your breakfast and lunch when you’re eating that way? My son’s school has a really nice outdoor space, but no decent outdoor seating. So they can’t eat outside, despite the fact that this is California, with pretty nice weather a lot of the time. This is a capital investment issue, a one-time cost, a perfect chance for some company like Smith & Hawken, to donate a lot of really nice, sturdy, outdoor furniture with good umbrellas or something, to the Berkeley schools. If we’re going to feed Berkeley’s children beautiful food, they should also be eating it in a sane atmosphere. Surely, somebody can pry some money loose for nicer cafeteria seating.

Feeding our children these gorgeous lunches is going to have its challenges, as the breakfast program illustrates. But it can work — and I hope it does.

I’ll be discussing it in much more detail in the year to come.

An announcement. I will be having surgery tomorrow, and will be off recuperating until Thursday. Because I’ll be eating bon-bons and reading novels Tuesday and Wednesday, I won’t be writing about lunches. Do not fear, however. Thursday’s post will feature back to school lunches for middle schoolers.

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Written by bloglily

September 4, 2006 at 5:32 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] But I have devoted an entire blog to the subject of the packed lunch. It’s fun. It helps remind my children that what and how we eat matters. And yes, it’s a little weird. But I’m going with it, because sometimes that’s what you do with things you just really like. And it turns out that, in Berkeley where I live, I am not the only person thinking maybe ‘way too much about school lunches. If you have a chance, you might want to check it out, dip your toe into the utopian scheme that’s happening in my youngest child’s school to stamp out childhood diabetes through the introduction of organic, non-processed, locally prepared and grown, delicious food. Sounds good, huh? Or, possibly, too good to be true. I’ve written about Berkeley’s Renegade Lunch Lady here. The New Yorker has also written about her, in the September 5 education issue. But they’re not right there, in the cafeteria, like I am. Ha. […]

  2. […] The Renegade Lunch Lady Feeds Berkeley Jump to Comments […]


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