LIn the kitchen at Oakland’s Ralph Bunche High School, fourteams of culinary students are sauteing, simmering and searing bite-sized
chunks of antibiotic-free chicken, in a culinary challenge as riveting as any reality TV cooking showdown.
Simply stated, their goal is to create the ideal school lunch, and solve the riddle that many school districts face every day. How do you serve
a school cafeteria meal that’s delicious and healthy, and that costs between $1 and $1.25 foringredients — the typical budget for a school
lunch nationwide?
“It seemed it was impossible,” said Noah Vinson, 17, after he and his cooking partner, Isiah Gibson, 18, put the ænishing touches on their
dish, an “Oaklandish chicken cheese sandwich,” styled afterthe iconic Philly cheese steak sandwich, with baked fries and a low-fat orange
and vanilla creamsicle-type concoction. “I was thinking, you can’t even buy a bag of chips for $1.25.”
Vinson and his fellow Oakland culinary students were participating in the nationwide Healthy Schools Campaign’s Cooking up Change
competition, which challenges teams of culinary students to whip up delicious meals while still meeting stringent low-fat, low-sodium,
low-sugarfederal nutritional guidelines. Plus, they have to keep it to a price tag of about $1 in food costs, what’s typically left overfrom
federal and state reimbursement forlunch after you take out labor, facilities and other overhead costs.
More schools and school districts in the Bay Area are joining the farm-to-school movement by serving fresh, healthier, locally sourced
meals at a reasonable cost.
Some are further along than others, such as Sausalito Marin City School, which in 2015 became the ærst school district in the nation to go
all organic, non-GMO. Berkeley has been offering fresh, healthy and locally sourced foods as its standard fare for years, while others, like
Pittsburg and Palo Alto, have gone to offering such meals on a more regular basis.
Districts such as West Contra Costa, Mt. Diablo, Antioch, Brentwood and Oakley have dipped theirtoe in the movement, offering pilot
programs, such as California Thursdays, featuring locally sourced lunches one day a week. But they are still æguring out ways to overcome
the barriers in providing such lunches every school day.
Sausalito Marin City has leveraged relationships with farmers and suppliers to go 100 percent organic, but its average food cost perlunch is
about $2.50, said Judi Shils, executive director of Turning Green.
Shils helped spearhead a weeklong pilot project in West Contra Costa earlierin the yearto offer organic foods that she hopes will be
adopted district-wide.
The Berkeley district’s farm-to-table lunch program is about 12 years old, said district executive chef Bonnie Christensen. And it’s made a
commitment to dedicate more funding to the effort, about $1.93 to $2 per meal, which it was able to do because residents voted about 25
years ago to pay highertaxes for better school meals, she said.
While the maximum rate of federal reimbursement for school lunches in the continental United States is $3.39 per meal, public schools in
the Bay Area typically charge students anywhere from $2.25 to $4.50 or more, which pays forthe costs of labor and overhead as well as
food.
The properinfrastructure and equipment, as well as extra stafæng, are needed to make healthier meals, said Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland
Uniæed’s executive director of nutrition services. That’s why her school district is in the midst of building a $40 million central kitchen that
will allow it to go beyond pre-packaged food most days of the week, she said.
Overhead costs aside, hitting that standard food budget of $1 to $1.25 per meal is not as daunting as it might seem because school
districts save on costs by buying in bulk, said chef David Isenberg, director of the culinary program at Ralph J Bunche High School.

“With just $1.25, you have to have real creativity,” saidXavier Gibson, 18, a senior who with his team crafted a whole-wheat
burrito with chicken and pinto beans, fresh cole slaw and peach cobbler. “It’s super-difæcult. The recipes we have now are totally different
from what we started out with.”
They revised their original recipe many times, forgoing steak for chicken, leaving out the red and green bell pepper, squash and carrots, and
trading out Swiss cheese for American, in orderto whittle down the sandwich to 88 cents, which was topped with a serving of baked fries for
27 cents. But that still left just about 23 cents for a dessert. “We only had 23 cents left forit, and we were just sitting there, like, how are we
going to do that?” Gibson recalled.
The teams had to stay within Michelle Obama-spearheaded Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act guidelines, which require that meals have no
more than 10 grams of fat, range between 550 and 650 calories, and allow for only whole-grain, low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugarfoods,
Bunche High School’s Isenberg said.
The lunch tray that was crowned the winner of the contest was a Thai chicken roll-up with dipping sauce, steamed pepper broccoli and
spiced apple sauce, created by 18-year-old seniors Jaye Poindexter and Jimmy Saliphan. Not only will the winning entry be served districtwide,
the team will travel to Washington, D.C. to compete against other states’ winning teams forthe national title.
Alva Spence, food service consultant for Palo Alto School District, said it has made an effort in recent years to not only step up its healthy,
fresh food options but speciæcally caterto students’ tastes. It offers annual tasting days that invite students and staff to sample different
dishes and vote on which they like best. In addition, it offers sushi and pho days that are wildly popular with students, all the while working
to stay within that $1 to $1.25 window forfood costs.
Considering the limitations, it’s easy to understand why so much of the food offered “is just not good,” saidXavier Gibson, Isiah’s brother.
“But more meals like this would bring out more people to eat in the cafeteria,” said Jamal Hurst, a 17-year-old senior. He and his teammate
Yasmine Lewis, 18, made a California chicken burrito with a cole slaw and peach cobblerforthe contest.
“It’s not really cafeteria food,” he said. “It’s more like a æve-star meal that kids really would want to eat. And that would help more students
not go hungry, and focus on what is being taught in class.”