Berkeley, California has done it again. America's most 'progressive' city now finds itself unable to feed many of its children school lunches, and in those few schools still with a cafeteria, is resorting to pre—packaged airline—style food. 'Everyone agrees the food is terrible,' says Eric Weaver, chair of the district's Child Nutrition Advisory Committee.
This year, Berkeley will lose about $600,000 providing admittedly terrible food to its students. This is the same city which only a few years ago, with great fanfare, started serving gourmet organic lunches in its school cafeterias, prepared with the help of Chez Panisse, the city's world famous originator of California Cuisine. Of course, that food program is long—gone, because so few students bothered to avail themselves of the option, and it lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in its brief life.
Meanwhile, noontime visitors to downtown Berkeley cannot help but notice the human wave of high school students pouring into all the usual fast food emporiums, and even a few lesser—known exotic varieties ('Curry—in—a—Hurry'), where capitalists manage to serve tasty food for a few bucks, pay taxes, and even make a profit.
The reasons for the disparate performance of public and private sectors are not hard to find. Berkeley enforces a 'living wage policy' on itself and all bodies which contract with it. This same policy recently caused the city's largest provider of meals to the homeless to announce that it could no longer afford to do so, so great are the labor costs.
Please don't refer to Berkeley's food service workers as cooks. They are 'stationary engineers,' members of Local 39 of the union of the same name. As a result, labor eats up a huge portion of the costs of providing meals. The city receives $2.32 from the federal government for each student entitled to a free school lunch. However, once the workers get their cut and the city covers its overhead, there remains only 17 cents for milk, 15 cents for fruit and 15 cents for vegetables.
But the realities of labor costs, profit and loss, and financial viability have never counted for much in Berkeley. The city is pressing ahead with plans to introduce a food court at Berkeley High School, and to reintroduce another partnership scheme with Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, to provide fresh produce at one of the junior high schools.
The city, you see, has a list of over a dozen foundations that provide support for nutrition programs. Let us hope that Berkeley doesn't get as picky as a noontime school kid, and look too deeply into the origins of the fortunes which created those foundations. Some of those benefactors may have been capitalists, after all, and it wouldn't be good public policy to rely on profit—producing businesses. That's what many of Berkeley's high school students do every day when they eat lunch at Taco Bell and El Pollo Loco, and it just isn't satisfactory to the wise bureaucrats responsible for nutrition in the schools.