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No more nuggets: Berkeley schools serve Epic Chicken

In this first, multi-post set of his Cafeteria Confidential series, Ed Bruske reports on his recent week-long, firsthand look at how Berkeley, Calif., schools part ways from the typical school diet of frozen, industrially processed convenience foods. Cross-posted from The Slow Cook.


My instructions, simple enough, were spelled out in permanent black marker on the cover of a brown pizza delivery box: Lay six chicken breasts down on one side of a parchment-covered baking sheet pan, lay four across, then fill all the spaces in between. The precise pattern, altered only by the quantity of pieces involved, held for thighs, drumsticks, and wings, all of which -- 1,400 pounds' worth -- had been marinating over the weekend in a teriyaki-flavored brine. If all went well, the final product, roasted teriyaki chicken, would be ready three days hence, to be served as lunch to some 3,000 children in all 16 of the public schools in Berkeley, California.

I spent the next several hours "panning up" this mountain of chicken, preparing it for its destiny in a bank of convection ovens in the district's central cooking facility at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. This was my first assignment after offering my services as galley slave in exchange for a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most innovative school kitchens in the country. There was much more to come.

Earlier this year, I spent a similar week in the kitchen of my daughter's elementary school here in the District of Columbia. I expected to witness food being "fresh cooked," only to learn that most of what was being fed to my daughter and her student cohorts across the city was the same frozen, precooked convenience food -- the same chicken nuggets and tater tots -- that riveted millions of television viewers when Jamie Oliver exposed them on his recent "Food Revolution" series.

chicken marinating
The chicken is marinated overnight in a teriyaki brew made from fresh ingredients.

Berkeley once served that stuff, too. And there are some resemblances between the Tyson chicken nuggets the kids eat at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in D.C. and the teriyaki chicken being served across the country. Both, of course, start out as real chicken. Both are also "government commodity" chicken, meaning "surplus" the federal government purchases from giant chicken feedlots and donates to the federally subsidized school meals program.

But that's pretty much where any similarities end.

A tale of two chickens

The Tyson nuggets are really extrusions and amalgamations of all sorts of chicken scraps, seasoned with a dose of salt and chemical additives. Factory machines shape the mix into kid-size mouthfuls that are breaded and baked assembly-line style, then frozen and shipped hundreds of miles to school kitchens. Low-skilled workers pour the frozen nuggets out of plastic bags onto sheet pans and quickly reheat them. A few minutes in a 350-degree oven is all it takes before the factory nuggets are ready to be displayed on the food service line where hungry kids scoop them up.

The chicken in Berkeley schools also arrives frozen, in big bricks of chicken parts known as "eight-cut" chicken, meaning the chicken carcass has been cut in half, then into breasts, legs, thighs and wings -- eight pieces per bird. No further processing has been done. The skin is still on the meat; the meat still on the bone. It looks very much like the chicken you would find in the meat aisle of the grocery store if you were looking for an economical cut of poultry for dinner.

The chicken typically arrives on Wednesday in plain brown cardboard boxes. (Insiders call raw commodity ingredients "brown box" food.) The birds take two full days to thaw. Then the parts are separated, placed in big plastic tubs called "Lexans," and covered with a brine to rest in the central kitchen's refrigerated meat locker over the weekend. In this case, the teriyaki brine is a carefully measured mix of soy sauce from five-gallon containers, sherry vinegar, sesame oil, fresh garlic and ginger, and orange juice. A simple syrup of brown sugar and water is poured over the whole thing until the chicken is completely covered. The Lexan weighs about 200 pounds.

Chicken roasting

Roasting the Epic Chicken in preparation for a teriyaki chicken school lunch. (Ed Bruske photo)

In other words, by the time I got to these huge tubs of chicken on Monday, the chicken had already been in process five days with the intervention of several kitchen workers -- separating the chicken, peeling and chopping ginger, chopping garlic, mixing the brine, moving the chicken in and out of walk-in refrigerators. Over the ensuing three days it would require further labor: the chicken pieces would be drained and organized on sheet pans, brushed with another teriyaki glaze, roasted to a precise 160 degrees internally. The cooked chicken would then spend yet another night in a refrigerator before being wrapped, labeled, and trucked to outlying schools, and finally re-warmed and served in lunch lines all over town.

It was so much work that I've dubbed it "Epic Chicken." As such, it perfectly illustrates the difference between the frozen convenience foods served in most public schools and the food cooked from scratch in the Berkeley Unified School District.

Let them eat crap

The joke in school food circles these days is that the most important tool in modern school kitchens has become the box cutter, needed to remove all those frozen, pre-cooked meal components like chicken nuggets and beef teriyaki bites from their shipping containers. Epic Chicken represents the polar opposite, a huge investment in time, labor and attention around the concept of cooking food on a large scale from fresh, raw ingredients.

One style of feeding children is easy and requires hardly any skill at all. That means a big savings on labor. The Berkeley method saves on some ingredients, but definitely costs more in human effort. But in D.C., school food services currently runs a deficit of more than $5 million every year. The red ink was double that before the District hired Chartwells-Thompson, a huge food service corporation, to take over school meals here. The average U.S. school meal program, according to the School Nutrition Association, operates in the red to the tune of 35 cents per meal. In Berkeley, meanwhile, food services not only don't lose money, they are actually making a profit for the first time since 2001, five years after making the switch to cooking from scratch.

Still, some skeptics might ask: Why go to all that trouble? Why spend eight days making chicken for just one meal? Kids seem just as happy eating processed convenience foods, argue many food service directors. Why not just give them what they want?

Indeed, it was precisely that question that I came to Berkeley to answer, because it was here that Alice Waters, the fairy godmother of cooking fresh food from local, seasonal ingredients, made her imprint on the public school cafeteria through her Edible Schoolyard project. Her influence continues to reverberate around the country, inspiring school districts, farm to school programs, even First Lady and White House gardener-in-chief Michelle Obama.

But in case you thought the Berkeley school menu was just a copy of the one at Waters' internationally famous restaurant, kid preferences exert an enormous influence even in schools where food is fresh-cooked. Like every other school in the federal meals program, they need to move as much of that Epic Chicken as possible: each student who qualifies for a free lunch and takes the chicken earns the school district a $2.68 payment from Uncle Sam.

Thus, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School you will see pizza on the menu twice a week, Monday and Friday. Pizza is, hands down, the favorite food of schoolchildren nationwide. In most schools, kids get a reheated frozen pizza made in factory. In Berkeley the pizza is made in the central kitchen using a whole wheat crust, real mozzarella, and marinara sauce made with freshly chopped onion, celery and carrots. And instead of being topped with frozen, factory-made pepperoni, as in my daughter's school in D.C., here it's fixed with turkey sausage also made from scratch using whole turkey and seasonings. One variety of Berkeley pizza even comes with pesto.

Nachos are served every Friday. But they are not the fried chips doused with processed Dayglo-orange cheese you see at other schools. The Berkeley nachos start with baked corn chips and finish with a meat mix of beef, turkey, and soy protein, accompanied by a side of freshly cooked brown rice and refried beans. Tacos, also with brown rice and beans, are served every Monday as an alternative to the pizza. And there's plenty of pasta to be eaten over the course of a week, but these involve freshly grated cheeses and sauces that start with home-made vegetable stock, just like in a first-class restaurant.

Alice Waters might cringe at the way her food rules have been bent to accommodate juvenile tastes. But Berkeley Public Schools Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen says her menu addresses the main concern of the Berkeley parents who lobbied for the change. They were appalled by the frozen, processed foods loaded with fat, salt. and sugar that schools were serving. They did not want their children exposed to corporate, brand-name products laced with additives. They wanted their children to learn to eat fresh-cooked meals.

"It's about educating the kids that fresh food exists and it's out there, available to them," says Christensen. "We had so many kids who didn't know what sauerkraut is. Can you believe there are eighth-graders who don't know what sauerkraut is?"

In Berkeley, there are no sugary desserts served, no "a la carte" line with ice-cream sandwiches and corn dogs. You also will not see the flavored milks that are rampant in D.C. schools, sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup to the level of a Classic Coke or Mountain Dew. In Berkeley, kids have a choice of water, iced tea (for middle and high school), or plain organic milk with lunch. To save money, and reduce the waste of milk cartons, kids serve themselves from milk dispensers using re-usable plastic cups.

And, in accordance with Alice Waters' dictum that all meals should be shared and savored in pleasant surroundings, kids at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School eat their Epic Chicken in a spa-like hall called the Dining Commons, as at nearby UC Berkeley. The building overlooks an asphalt playground, but with vaulted ceilings braced with rough-hewn wooden beams, and tables and chairs hand-crafted from recycled oak and walnut, it looks like it would be perfectly at home in more rustic surroundings -- say, Yosemite National Park. (Watch a YouTube video tour of the Dining Commons led by former Berkeley Unified School District Director of Nutrition Services Ann Cooper.)

Internal medicine

It was here that I reported for duty at 5:30 am on a Monday in April. A bright, full moon hung over San Francisco Bay, and from the playground a grand vista opened through a break in the tree line: a wind-blown chop on the Bay waters, the hills above Sausalito across the water silhouetted on the horizon, and in the distance hundreds of twinkling pinpoints of light -- like a string of tiny, orange pearls -- outlining the Golden Gate Bridge.

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I walked through the kitchen doors. Sous Chef Joan Gallagher seemed startled to see me. When I explained who I was, she led me through a kitchen the size of a basketball court to a big kettle cooker, where Christensen was getting ready to cook pasta.

"You must be the new intern," she said.

Intern? I looked around to see if there was someone behind me. Nope. "Intern" was my official designation during the week I was embedded in Berkeley's central kitchen.

Gallagher handed me a black apron, a pair of latex gloves, and a hair net. Yes, I would have to wear a hair net. (I later walked two miles to the bookstore at U.C. Berkeley to purchase a baseball cap.) Then Gallagher showed me to the meat room and explained how to remove the raw chicken from the teriyaki brine; how to drain it in a perforated, plastic Lexan that fit perfectly into the room's big, stainless sink; and how to arrange the pieces on the parchment-covered sheet pans.

When fully loaded, the sheet pans were inserted into an aluminum rack on wheels, the rack covered with a big, translucent plastic bag, then the whole thing was wheeled into a refrigerator pending the next step in the process.

Trays of chicken for school lunches

Kids\' meals ready to be served at Berkeley public schools. (Ed Bruske)

Later that morning I was joined by a kitchen employee named Renell. I focused on draining the chicken, and he arranged it on the sheet pans. Renell is a kind of utility player in the Berkeley food service scheme. He goes wherever one of the district's outlying schools -- or the central kitchen -- might have a need on any given day. On this particular Monday, supervisors were scrambling because 7 of the 30-odd kitchen workers in the system had not shown up. Later, three of the food servers at MLK would be dispatched to other schools to help out in the lunch lines.

After we'd exchanged pleasantries, I asked Renell what he thought about all this cooked-from-scratch food he was helping to make.

"I guess it's all about this obesity thing people are talking about," he said. "But that's just being lazy. People don't have the decency to move around after they eat. Me, I like to get up and walk -- do things -- after I've had a meal." And the food in particular? I asked. "From what I see," he replied, "a lot of this food just goes in the trash. I say just give the kids the junk food. They'll just leave here and go off to McDonald's anyway."

Well, that's one man's opinion. Dismal though it might sound, it's shared by a great many food service directors all over the country. But not in Berkeley.

At 10 am, I and the rest of the kitchen crew broke for our daily "family" meal. This consisted of the tacos from the Friday before, along with a fresh salad: romaine lettuce with hard-boiled egg, sliced carrots, sliced radishes and a selection of dressings. The meat mixture served with the tacos has a kind of cellulosic aspect, because of the soy protein that's mixed in with the ground beef and turkey. But I noticed that my new kitchen companions helped themselves to big piles of it.

Then it was back to "panning up" chicken, the toughest part being the wings, which need to be tightly folded so that the tips are not exposed and do not burn while roasting. Over the course of the week, I would come back often to these same pans of chicken. After the huge breasts were cooked in a special steam-roaster to keep them moist, they needed to be sliced in half to make kid-size portions. I would wrap and label the cooked chicken for delivery.

I weighed and wrapped stainless pans of pasta. I helped seal kiddie meals for the district's day care centers on an AmeriPak assembly machine that mimicked the chocolate factory scene in I Love Lucy. I counted bags of corn chips for chillaquiles, packed breakfast bins, and every morning at 11:25, I took my position at one of the serving stations and braced for the first of three waves of several hundred kids hungry for lunch.

It was there each day that I came eyeball to eyeball with the question that is so vexing authorities concerned with children's health and especially how school meals might be implicated in an epidemic of obesity: What will kids eat?

Next in Cafeteria Confidential: How parents revolted against processed foods.

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