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 restauraBonnie ChristensenExecutive Chef Bonnie Christensennt, 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 lunchesKids’ 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: How parents revolted against processed foods.