Childhood obesity in the United States has now reached what many are calling epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35 percent of all American children are overweight. Many of them will develop diabetes by the time they finish high school. Since many youngsters eat lunch, and sometimes breakfast at school, the city of Berkeley, California, has decided to take action against obesity in its school cafeterias. It has overhauled its entire menu, replacing typical pizza, fried foods, and high calorie items with healthier choices, such as fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
At Berkeley High School, kitchen manager William Harris shows off the variety. "Right here, we're doing hamburgers and hot dogs and veggie burgers. It's all grass-fed beef." He points to another display area. "At this station, we're doing egg rolls with Asian noodle salad. On this side, all organic salad bar. On the other side, teriyaki meatballs with rice and vegetables."
Most of the food is now made from scratch, using fresh and mostly organic ingredients. It's the sort of food you might expect to find at higher-end restaurants. Much to everyone's surprise, the most popular menu item is the all-organic salad bar. "When I first put in that salad bar, everyone said 'oh, kids won't eat salad!'" recalls Ann Cooper, the Director of Nutritional Services at Berkeley's public schools. "And now kids line up for salad. It's amazing, kids love the salad bar."
Cooper, a celebrity chef who's cooked for clients like the Grateful Dead band and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, calls herself "The Renegade Lunch Lady," and is on a mission to change the way American children are eating, and what the school cafeterias are serving. "When I came to Berkeley," she says, "I wanted to segue from a system where we had almost all processed foods to one where we're serving fresh foods. We wanted to reduce and eliminate where possible refined sugars and refined flours, eliminate trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, eliminate desserts, fried foods. And really try and increase fresh fruits and vegetables, whole foods, with an eye in the long run towards more locally produced foods and more organic foods."
Cooper says, especially at the high school level, where students are often allowed to leave campus for lunch, she works really hard to offer a wide and appealing variety of items. "One of the things that's really important, if we want the kids to eat there, is to give them choices and have the choices be healthy choices, but also be interesting, things they want to eat and things they find acceptable, that they're happy with. We feel like we're competition with the fast food places right up the street."
Winning the hearts, minds, and palettes of students is easier said than done. A random sampling of young critics produced a mixed review: It's disgusting… They try to be too healthy… I think the salad bar is really good, and it's good quality… More people would go there by having food that we like… Probably like pizza, nachos, French fries... McDonald's is cheaper and you can get what you want.
Cooper laughs at hearing the comments. "Most days, my head is going like this: 'boom, boom, boom.' Like if my head was a caricature, you can see my head about to explode."
Ann Cooper admits that steering kids away from McDonald's and fast food will not happen overnight, but she insists it's a goal worth pursuing. "Making sure that our children's health and wellness is just as much a priority as whether they can read and write. Because they need all of those things. Reading, writing, math, trigonometry… all that is going to do our children no good if they all have diabetes by the time they're 17 years old and are sick and insulin-dependent by the time they're 22. We have to put as much priority on their health and good food and nutrition as we do on everything else."
The new cafeteria menu has been in place for over a year. Although the menu is more expensive and labor intensive, the Berkeley school administration is fully behind the program. It's too soon to tell whether the change has made a difference in student health and obesity. But if it does, Berkeley's new cafeteria menu could serve as an important role model for other schools around the country