Transitioning Public School Cafeterias to Serve Healthier Menus

Studies show school lunches lack the nutritional requirements needed for learning. Berkeley, California is leading the way for public school cafeterias to serve healthier menus.

| December 2001/January 2002

Learn how studies are urging public school cafeterias to serve healthier menus. 

Public school cafeterias have been the butt of jokes for decades, but there is absolutely nothing funny about what the nation's children eat every day.

"There's simply not enough food for thought," said Janet Brown of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Ironically, the institutions charged with teaching children about science and nutrition aren't providing those children with the nutritional requirements countless studies have indicated are necessary for top-notch learning performance. Instead, school cafeterias have become the dumping grounds for commercial agriculture surplus and a training ground for future junk-food dependent consumers. Meanwhile, the time spent on educating children about how food actually makes it to their plastic trays has been evaporating as studies show the need for public school cafeterias to serve healthier menus.

But, as Brown says, schools are one place where local action can truly be effective, and in Berkeley, California, a local effort has taken back school lunches and the curriculum. In 1999, Berkeley passed a 12-point plan designed to get more local, organic food into students and to cut out genetically engineered products. So far, Berkeley students have seen the addition of organic apple juice grown in the San Francisco area, and even organic, kid-friendly foods like tortilla chips, peanut butter and graham crackers. The program not only improves the students' nutrition, it improves the local economy by pumping school funds — almost $100,000 according to the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy — back to local growers.

"The process is actually restoring authority back to the family and the community," Brown said.

The nutrition helps students be primed for another initiative in the Berkeley schools: learning about sustainable agriculture in one of the district's several organic gardens, including the flagship garden at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. Students, faculty and community volunteers helped to build the gardens, while the students care for the plants that eventually become part of the school's cuisine.

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