What I Think About When I Look At This Labor of Lunch

April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m standing off to the side of the expansive kitchen workspace, and watching a ballet of uniformed bodies in motion.  It’s 6am in the Central Kitchen at King Middle School where the crew of cooks, chefs and supervisors are preparing meals for the children of the Berkeley Unified School District.

I focus on the workers’ hands using mostly tools, not machines. They move around the stoves and chopping boards quickly and intently.  Their motions are deliberate, repetitive and tiring. I see and feel through my body and senses how hard it is to prepare and serve fresh food made from scratch for children across many schools, many tastes, and many cultures of eating.

“It’s like preparing Thanksgiving dinner for 3,000, every day of the school year,” Berkeley food services Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen says about the daily workflow.

At 5:30am every day of the school year this central kitchen wakes up with prepping and cooking activity — cleaning and cutting chicken parts, grinding meat and making broth, baking beans and cutting vegetables, setting up the salad bar and getting the breakfast bags out the door to other schools for distribution. The early morning aromas of herbs, spices and onions are earthy and delicious. The atmosphere is warm from the ovens and tense with the needs of the schedule and clock.

Making school lunch minus processed ingredients is physically demanding work.  More than just a job, this is labor that engages a worker’s whole body and attention. And because this is institutional food, it is made to strict nutritional and safety guidelines and unyielding schedules for children also ruled by the clock — eating lunch with recess in 20-minute shifts from 11:00am to 1pm.

I’ve learned to admire the new generation of food service directors moving into this field and changing it with their passion, values and professional food service skills. Chef Clell Hoffman is the Food Services Director for the Albany School District, north of Berkeley. I’m meeting him for the first time to plan a “media social” to kick off the new school year in Fall 2012.

He tells me that he loves to hear from families — from “when are you ever going to make food that my child will eat?” to “can you serve bulghur and lentils?” When he explains his vision, his challenges, and his work-arounds to maintain sustainability, parents get a better sense of what school food service directors are up against in their quest to provide healthy and delicious meals for a 20 minute lunch period.

“It’s hard to make food that children will eat,” he admits as a dad of young children himself. There are the USDA’s new 2012 rules requiring whole wheat bread, lower sodium, reduced high-calorie items and keeping green and orange vegetables on the daily menu. Milk and fresh fruit must always be available.

Congress has reauthorized funds to subsidize low costs and free school lunches, but food service directors have to come up with ways to get kids to try new foods, especially green and orange vegetables they may not like or want to eat.

Chef Clell echoes what innovators across the country are saying — for kids to make healthy choices, they have to be given hands-on experiential learning in nutrition all the way through their school years.

When children have a cooking and gardening curriculum connected to their academics, then they will be more likely to make healthy choices at lunch and home.  The word’s out that Malcolm X Elementary’s garden teacher Rivka Mason’s Massaged Kale Salad is in high demand across Berkeley — children are begging their parents to buy dinosaur kale just so they can show them how to make it.

Chef Clell says bluntly, “we need to get more funding to educate children about food. That way we’ll see more trying new tastes and a lot less waste.”

“And then, the more all kids participate in eating school lunch,” he says, “the better the school lunches will be!”

I hear Chef Clell saying that we’re all part of the Lunch Love Community educating the whole child.  When we work with our school districts to support their Food Service staff, learn about the challenges, and understand their menu choices and designs, then we’ll see remarkable improvements.

This is another kind of hard work that will take a generation to change.

Like kitchen labor, it is ultimately tremendously satisfying. It’s an invitation to be mindful about how our daily food is connected to wellbeing, to social equity and justice, and to bigger issues of how we teach our children to care for the earth, its bounty, and each other.

That’s what I think about when I look at the labor of lunch.

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