Part 4 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.

Breakfast at BerkeleyBreakfasts for Berkeley schoolkids are simple, healthy — and cheap.(Ed Bruske photos)Around 8:30 each morning, students at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., cross an asphalt playground behind the main school building and begin drifting into a cafeteria and kitchen complex known as the Dining Commons to pick up breakfast for themselves and their classmates. They head for a set of rolling metal shelves holding gray, plastic bins, and carry one back to their classroom, where they dole out the food and fill out a roster indicating which students took the meal.

One morning during my recent “internship” with the school’s central kitchen, I was assigned to load the bins. That day, the bins’ contents were a sliced loaf of homemade banana bread, kid-size Fuji and Golden Delicious apples (that I sealed in plastic bags), and cartons of plain organic milk.

I couldn’t believe how simple it was. Here in the District of Columbia, where my daughter attends fourth grade at a public elementary school, kids eat in cafeterias and get to choose hot items like breakfast pizza, eggs, or egg-and-cheese patties with bagels, in addition to brand-name cereals and a choice of four different milk varieties, including chocolate and strawberry.

The Berkeley breakfast seemed downright spartan by comparison. Yet those gray bins hold the key to the success of Berkeley’s cook-from-scratch program.

Mealing and dealing

When chef Ann Cooper was hired five years ago to help transform the Berkeley meal program from industrially processed convenience foods to meals cooked fresh from raw ingredients, one of the first things she did was examine the program’s finances. And there in the school system’s general budget she found certain “Meals for Needy” funds provided by the State of California. The state allocates $1.24 for each breakfast the school district serves to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and that’s on top of the $1.46 the federal government pays for students who meet the subsidized breakfast criteria. But California does not require that “Meals for Needy” money actually be used for food. It can be directed anywhere in a school district’s budget. Cooper insisted that it be dedicated to her food operation.

“The ‘Meals for Needy’ money wasn’t going into meals, it was going into the general fund for other programs. Food services was running a negative balance,” Cooper recalls. “Ethically, I thought the money should go into school food. I said, ‘If you want us to grow the program and make it sustainable, you’re actually penalizing us if we don’t get this money.'”

In Cooper’s second year, the ‘Meals for Needy’ funds were reassigned to food services. It was a virtual bonanza of extra cash — $879,000 this year alone, out of a $3.7 million food budget.

But to really turbo-charge the deal, Berkeley schools decided to start serving breakfast in the classroom only for all its students except those in high school, who take breakfast in the cafeteria. To top it off, breakfast is universally free. There’s no reason for any student not to take it. Consequently, participation in the breakfast program exploded, from less than 9 percent of the district’s 9,100 students in 2005 to 61 percent this year. The figure might be much higher if high-schoolers participated, but shifting class schedules and the absence of home rooms in high school pose barriers, says Cooper. Only 4 percent of high school students take breakfast, compared to 96 percent of elementary- and middle-schoolers.

By comparison, barely 30 percent of students in the District of Columbia take advantage of the free breakfast the public school system offers, although a recently passed “Healthy Schools” bill would require the city’s schools to offer breakfast in classrooms where there is a high percentage of needy students.

“With current federal funding for the School Breakfast Program ranging from $1.16 to $1.74 for every breakfast served to students eligible for free and reduced meals, a Breakfast in the Classroom program — in which every child is served breakfast every day — can be a financial goldmine for severe-need school districts,” says school-food consultant Kate Adamick, citing the relatively low food and labor costs associated with producing that meal. “The net revenue generated by the breakfast program can then be used to help supplement the cost of providing a healthier school lunch.”

Since the average cost of making a school breakfast like the one I packed is only around $1.31 in Berkeley, the multiplier effect of receiving both state and federal funds, coupled with a captive audience created by serving breakfasts only in classrooms — and having students and teachers reduce labor costs by distributing the morning meal — makes breakfast a cash cow that is the envy of every administrator in Berkeley schools.

“There are lots of people who would love to get their hands on that ‘Meals for Needy’ money,” said Bonnie Christensen, the school district’s executive chef. “I tell them, take away our ‘Meals for Needy’ money and you won’t have a meals program any more.”

The extra funds go a long way toward compensating for what may have been over-exuberant expectations for the lunch program. Eric Weaver, one of the original parent activists behind the switch from processed to fresh food in Berkeley (see my last post, about the history of Berkeley’s school food revolution), said organizers knew that cooking from scratch would be more expensive, but they believed better food would induce more kids to participate. “The food cost is high. But if you’re selling twice as many lunches, the marginal cost is lower,” Weaver said.

In fact, student participation in the revamped lunch program has changed little since it started five years ago. The latest data show that 25.6 percent of Berkeley students took the federally subsidized lunch this year, compared to 24.5 percent in 2005, an increase of a little more than 1 percent. Participation among the 3,355 students at Berkeley High School has actually declined by nearly 16 percent, from a rate of 8.3 percent to 6.4 percent. Most high school students leave campus for lunch.

The extra revenue from breakfast helps pay for better food at lunch, as well as the additional labor it takes to prepare it. The average food cost for lunch meals in Berkeley schools is around $1.40, compared to $1 or less at most other schools around the country. Berkeley will feel a bit of a pinch in the fall, however. Because of California’s ongoing budget meltdown, the per-student grant of $1.24 for each breakfast under the “Meals for Needy” program is scheduled to drop to $1.17.

If Berkeley’s financial approach to breakfast sounds devilishly clever, it gets even better where student well-being is concerned. One of the reasons for moving breakfast to the classrooms was to remove the stigma students might feel standing in line for free meals. Even the truly needy will sometimes skip meals if it means revealing themselves as falling into the free or reduced-price category. About 41 percent of the Berkeley’s children qualify for either free or reduced-price meals based on family income.

“We want all of the kids to sit down and eat breakfast together,” says Christensen. “We don’t want the stigma. The way to make that happen is to have kids take breakfast as a whole.”