Does Tabius Polk like organic food?
"Food that plays music? Like a piano?" the 8-year-old asked in a whisper. "Um, I don't think I'd eat that."
Would he down a hamburger laced with prunes? Tabius, who was taking a break from summer vacation to participate in a taste-test of organic cereal, apple juice and apples, recoiled and squinted. His look said: "Ya gotta be kidding me."
No, Tabius. You live in Berkeley, where people like to brag about how they are progressive and how they start lots of good things. The latest one is the Berkeley Unified School Board's mandate that pesticide-free, herbicide-free and synthetic-fertilizer-free food be served to the district's 9,400 students as often as possible for breakfast and lunch.
Beginning with organic salads, milk without bovine-growth hormones, organic cereals, fruit and a few entrees such as pizza pockets, the district hopes eventually to extend the initiative to all food served in the district's 15 schools. Every school will have its own organic vegetable garden tended by the students to teach them about agriculture and ecology and to provide perhaps 25 percent of the organic produce needed.
The inspiration for this is a program begun by Alice Waters of the restaurant Chez Panisse, who began an Edible Schoolyard several years ago for one Berkeley school.
Not all the food will immediately be the musical variety feared by Tabius. Knowing how picky children can be, the district still will offer the same bulk-buy, microwaveable hamburgers and pizza that it has served for years.
"This isn't going to happen overnight. It's part of a long-term strategy for changing behavior and patterns of living. We hope it will be a model for the nation," said Janet Brown, the project liaison to the school district from the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit grant-giving and educational organization.
The center received a three-year, $175,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year to help start the gardens and establish a food policy for the Berkeley Unified School District. That 11-point policy was the basis of the grant application. Projects in three other states -- Vermont, North Carolina and Florida -- also were granted funds from the USDA. Berkeley's is considered the most progressive.
Brown said the drive to put organics in the cafeteria is one part of a bigger picture. That is the 11-point food policy adopted earlier this month by the school board. Brown said Berkeley is the first city in the nation to specifically outline a plan to recognize the connection between a healthful diet and a student's ability to learn -- and do something about it.
Berkeley Unified Schools Superintendent Jack McLaughlin, who said he eats organic when he can, thought the program was the right idea when it came up at a school board meeting. "You should teach what you talk about," he said. "We tell kids to be healthy, but what's the point if we don't model it?"
The policy is broad and aimed at improving community life by teaching healthful eating patterns to youngsters. In addition to the creeping availability of organic food in school cafeterias, administrators will eliminate the reduced-price category for school lunches and provide free food to all low-income children. (About 90 percent of the Berkeley School District students who eat school lunches qualify for free or discounted meals. Brown said children from wealthier families bring food from home, and those in middle school may leave campus for lunch.) Other goals include establishing a child nutrition advisory committee and eliminating food additives and high-fat, high-sugar snacks and entrees. Irradiated foods will be banned, as will genetically modified ones. The teachers will preach recycling in the classroom and cafeteria -- supplying the "how-comes and so-whats," as project member Erica Pen put it.
Brown said she hopes the school food will be so healthful and tasty that teachers and people who live near the school will drop in for lunch. Few teachers eat the schools' food now. To improve the dining atmosphere, tablecloths and music eventually will be added.
A big part of the program will be linking schools with small, perhaps struggling, organic farms that abound to the city's north in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties. Even though Berkeley is in the heart of what some might call the Bean Sprout Belt, Jered Lawson, project coordinator, said the district's children come from varied backgrounds and ethnic groups but are mostly from low-income families who can't afford to buy organic food. The cost of organic foods often is nearly double that of conventionally farmed food. Organic frozen products and cereal cost more, too.
The program's planner said project members think they can cut the district's costs -- none of the USDA money goes toward paying for food -- by purchasing the small or uglier fruit and vegetables that groceries can't sell, buying in bulk and soliciting donations from food producers. A local bread company that uses organic flour, for example, has promised to donate 30 loaves a day.
The cost of organic food may be why so few of the children at the tastings conducted by the project leaders knew what "organic" means. "One little girl said it was the same thing as `gigantic,' " recalled Lawson.
Some kids have other ideas. At the tasting Tabius attended Thursday at his school, one 8-year-old boy said organic produce was the kind that isn't "sprayed with chemicals that make you really sick." A project member congratulated him on a correct answer.
This is exactly what some scientists and farmers who use pesticides fear. Bruce Ames, director of the University of California at Berkeley's Environmental Health Sciences Center, said scaring children away from conventionally grown produce is unfair. He said there is no evidence that traces of pesticide residue are a serious health hazard.
"We are talking about a minuscule, hypothetical risk from traces of pesticides," Ames said. "They are distracting kids from what's really important: eating more fruits and vegetables, sprayed or unsprayed."
Tom Bates, a former California assemblyman who got involved in the initiative after an angry parent complained about the high-fat, high-sugar food in the school cafeterias, conceded that many troubled, money-strapped school districts may think that organics and school gardens are the least of their worries. They are having trouble simply meeting USDA guidelines to provide more fruit and vegetables in school meals and may find the suggestion of introducing organics ludicrous.
Bates still thinks any school district can incorporate food education and organics into their programs. "Look, Berkeley has proven that this is a place where things start and eventually move through the country," he said.
The planners say many outsiders have approached the project with skepticism, treating it as another example of the city's reputation for political correctness and near-arrogance in thinking it can show the world the way.
There's some basis for the attitudes of both Bates and the naysayers.
More than a decade ago, Berkeley banned Styrofoam and nuclear weapons within the city at the same meetings it decided such mundane things as sewer and sidewalk repair contracts. Past proclamations have decreed support for an independent Taiwan, opposed the U.S. signing of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and named Oct. 12 Indigenous People's Day rather than Columbus Day. Berkeley was the first city to ban investment in South Africa before the fall of apartheid.
And then there was the unanimous City Council proclamation in defense of Tinky Winky, the Teletubby. The Rev. Jerry Falwell said the creature was a poor role model because his purple color, his purse and the triangle atop his head made him openly gay.
"And did you know that Berkeley was first to have curb cuts in the sidewalks for the handicapped?" Bates said. "And product labeling! Our health food stores were the first to do that a long time ago."
Foodwise, Berkeley is the birthplace of California cuisine, which has swept the globe. Waters and her Chez Panisse started it all in 1971 with their veneration of family farms and organic produce. The restaurant was the first place where diners could order the $7 Satsuma tangerine dessert and receive -- yes -- one uncut organic Satsuma sitting on a plate like a queen on a throne. It's probably still the only place.