Part 5 of Cafeteria Confidential: Berkeley, in which 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.

After spending hours sorting chicken pieces during my first day on the job in the Berkeley school system’s central kitchen, I got a break.

“How would you like to serve the kids at lunch?” asked Joan Gallagher, the sous chef in charge of kitchen production. “It’s the most exciting part of the day. You’ll get to interact with the kids.”

I would soon learn that interactions with middle-schoolers over lunch food can test your nerves.

The not-so-magical fruit

My assignment was to scoop beans at one of two pizza stations in the “Dining Commons” at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. About 1,000 kids attend the school. They descend on the Commons in three waves, beginning at 11:25 am. First they check in at one of two cashiers, where they punch a personalized, four-digit number on a small keypad that identifies them as either a free, reduced-price, or pay-in-full customer. They get a ticket they’re supposed to deposit in a plastic bucket when they pick up their food. And they grab a tray, a reusable plastic dinner plate, and silverware.

Ed BruskeThe author, in hair net, scooping pastaThere are four food stations in all. In middle school, kids get a choice of two entrees; elementary school kids get only one. The other choice on Mondays is a taco with beans and rice.

The pizza produced in the central kitchen is quite good. In addition to canned tomatoes, the marinara sauce for the red pizza is loaded with vegetables: 125 pounds of celery, carrot, onion and garlic to be precise, all cooked in a giant kettle. The sausage pizza is topped with homemade turkey sausage. And a third variety — my favorite — is slathered with pesto.

In the district’s elementary schools, the pizza is made on rectangular baking sheets using a whole-wheat crust from a local bakery, FullBloom. Middle schoolers get something quite different: a round pizza that’s also made with a whole-wheat crust, but from an institutional supplier, Sysco. The reason? “By the time they get to middle school, kids are already very brand- or package-conscious,” says Executive Chef Bonnie Christensen. “They want round pizza.”

They had their ideas about beans, too, even the gorgeous, plump cannellini beans in a Tuscan-style salad that I was serving with an ice-cream scoop to go with the pizza. Basically, they didn’t want the beans.

“No beans!” I heard as plate after plate was thrust in our direction, demanding a slice of pizza. “No beans!” “No beans!”

Government regulations require that a certain quantity of vegetables or fruits be offered with school meals, along with meat, or meat alternative, and grains. The emphasis is on the word “offered,” because the kids can take what they want, as long as they take three of the items provided. If they don’t, what they do take doesn’t qualify as a “meal” and won’t be credited for purposes of the federal subsidies the school receives to pay for the food.

So how hard should I push the beans, which count as a vegetable? There was also a big bowl of oranges and apples at our station. The kids could take one of those. Or they could serve themselves a salad at the salad bar a few yards away. In most schools, the kids fill their plates in the food line before they get to the cashier. The unusual arrangement in Berkeley’s “dining commons” is deliberately more open and less institutional, suggesting an actual dining experience rather than a cattle call. But it does inject a bit of uncertainty. How were we supposed to kow what the kids did after they left our station if all they had on their plate was a slice of pizza and no beans?

Next to me was one of the regular servers, Joyce, who was handing out the pizza. She urged me not to push the beans too hard. “We want to be friends with the older kids,” she whispered. When I described to Christensen the uncertainty I was experiencing — the sense I got from Joyce that maybe I shouldn’t antagonize the kids by making them take beans they didn’t want — the executive chef didn’t flinch. “I antagonize them,” she said jokingly.

By the end of the week, I had a pat answer for kids who said they didn’t want the beans: “The federal government says you must have beans,” I’d say after grabbing their plate and dropping a scoop of Tuscan bean salad on it. Quickly followed by: “You don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to.”

The kids looked at me like I’d landed from Mars. I could see how this would get old fast.

lo meinBerkeley schools’ homemade lo mein hides lots of vegetables … just not well enough.(Ed Bruske)In fact, a quick tour around the dining hall told me the kids weren’t eating many beans. Mostly they scraped the beans into a compost receptacle at the end of the meal. On Wednesday — pasta day in Berkeley schools — I would confront this issue again when I was asked to man a station serving two kinds of lo mein. One was made with diced chicken and a mix of diced carrots, peas, and corn. A second vegetarian option had tofu with roasted broccoli and cauliflower.

The “lo mein” was really spaghetti noodles tossed with the other ingredients and a light Asian sauce. The vegetables in the chicken version in particular just wanted to sink to the bottom of the pan and disappear under the noodles. Kids who opted for the chicken lo mein frequently added “no vegetables” to their request. I would give them vegetables anyway. That seemed to irritate them. I would get an icy stare. One girl in particular got angry. I guess I misheard her, because I thought she said she wanted the vegetables. I did my best to find some with my spring-loaded tongs and lift them onto her plate. Finally she stomped her foot and sneered, “I said, no vegetables!”