In this second, 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. And check out the rest of the Cafeteria Confidential series.

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 marinatingThe 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 roastingRoasting 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?