Better Burgers for School Lunch

School Lunch Gets Fresh

The Conscious Kitchen serves up healthier,
tastier meals for West Contra Costa students

By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Carmen Silva

In the cafeteria at Madera Elementary School, a long line of chatty kids winds its way to a surprisingly elegant serving table. The usual microwaved lunches are nowhere in sight. Instead, the children get freshly cooked burgers or veggie burgers with whole-wheat buns, roasted squash, crisp lettuce, and juicy tangerines. Chefs and parent volunteers wearing white aprons serve the food, encouraging the kids to try everything. Once plates are filled, students acting as “lunch ambassadors” offer ketchup, mustard, or mayo.

Today is Better Burger Day and the end of a week-long farm-to-school dining demo organized by The Conscious Kitchen, a program striving to up the ante on nutrition and flavor in school cafeterias. The burgers, made with 30{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} less beef to mitigate climate change, are clearly a hit. Asked how the food tastes, the kids toss out praise like “fresh,” “real,” and “good” in between bites. A third grader says it feels like they’re eating dinner for lunch. Oren’s Kitchen chef and owner Arnon Oren, whose daughter attends the school, prepared the burgers by adding beets, carrots, onion, garlic, and mushrooms. “It’s powerful to have fresh-cooked food,” he says. “We don’t think of little kids as caring about it like we do, but their enthusiasm is obvious.” Meanwhile, at Peres Elementary, Jason Fox cooked up the burgers, taking time off from his usual gig as executive chef at Commonwealth in San Francisco. By using 30{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} less beef, the chefs increased the quantity of vegetables served, with the cost savings used to purchase organic and hormone-free beef.

During the week of January 30–February 3, students and staff at the two schools, Madera Elementary in El Cerrito and Peres Elementary in Richmond, cheerfully devoured organic foods like burgers, barbecue chicken, burritos, and frittata with egg and potato. To make it all happen, Conscious Kitchen coordinated the efforts of 14 Bay Area chefs, who donated their time to cook breakfast and lunch for 1,100 students using ingredients sourced from local farmers. The lunch demos were funded through grants secured by Conscious Kitchen plus donations from farmers and other vendors. Better Burger Day is part of the Better Burger Challenge, a campaign aimed at college campuses in partnership with the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Doing the Math

Judi Shils founded Conscious Kitchen in Marin County, where the group partnered with two schools to establish the Sausalito Marin City School District as the first organic, non-GMO district in the country. The program, which includes an experiential garden and nutrition curriculum, started as a pilot at Bayside MLK Jr. Academy in 2013, with Willow Creek Academy joining in 2015. Conscious Kitchen is part of Turning Green, a nonprofit that Shils and her daughter Erin Schrode set up in 2005 to get young people interested in green living.

This year, in partnership with independent grocer Good Earth Natural Foods, Shils and her team will help transition an additional 14 Marin County schools to their FLOSN framework: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and non-GMO foods. But it’s a huge leap from Marin to West Contra Costa, a much larger district where nearly 70{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. “How do we do something that nobody has done before for 30,000 kids in 55 schools?” asks Shils.

The USDA administers the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, which nationwide serve nearly 32 million children in public and nonprofit private schools. If a child qualifies for free lunch (meaning their family income is 130{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of the poverty level or less), the USDA reimburses a maximum of $3.33 per lunch. A typical Conscious Kitchen meal, according to Shils, costs between $4.50 and $5.50 including both food and labor. In the Sausalito Marin City district, the difference in cost is made up through additional allocations in the schools’ budgets. Costs are also heavily dependent on the number of kids who pay for lunch out of pocket, which helps to subsidize students who can’t afford to pay. “It all goes back to equity,” says Shils, noting that you have to transition both rich and poor schools at the same time. “What we’re trying to figure out,” she says, “is how do we create an equation that allows for all kids to eat the best food there is?”

Lisa LeBlanc, associate superintendent for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, was in the lunchroom at Madera Elementary on Better Burger Day. She and others from the district also visited Conscious Kitchen in Marin City and are excited but cautious about moving in a similar direction. “We’re much bigger in Contra Costa,” says LeBlanc. “We need to take baby steps in order to introduce new ideas.”

Because the district’s school kitchens don’t have the equipment needed for scratch cooking, meals are currently prepared at the Nutrition Center in Richmond and warmed in microwave ovens at individual schools. In response to questions about the usual school food, the kids are neutral or negative, saying, “It’s ok,” or, “You’re not always sure what’s in it,” and even, “Sometimes the food tastes like crayons, there’s so much plastic.”

Partnerships Make the Difference

Since the week of farm-to-school lunches at Madera and Peres, Shils has met with district leadership and food services staff to discuss a path forward. She hopes the Board of Education will approve a one-year pilot project for fresh-cooked, organic breakfast and lunch at both schools starting in August 2017, with training in advance of the start date. The goal, according to Shils, is to retrain the employee base, build their cooking skills, and then spend the year with them honing their expertise so school staff can run the show. The district isn’t ready to commit quite yet. “The principals, Food Service, and Conscious Kitchen are working together to understand the budget for this,” says LeBlanc.

“Partnerships make all the difference in the world,” says Shils, who also met with the Richmond Food Policy Council and is eager to work with local nonprofits, the Mayor’s office, and other civic groups, many of whom showed up to observe during the demo week. “There’s so much synergy, and we were so welcomed,” she adds. Shils acknowledges that as an outsider, she might be perceived as having a we-know-better attitude. “But on the contrary,” she says, “it’s a beautiful collaboration.”

Conscious Kitchen already partners with Marin-based farms and food vendors to increase its buying power, promote organic farming, and support the local economy. Shils plans to do the same in the East Bay and is thrilled to have connected with Richmond-based Urban Tilth and the El Cerrito Natural Grocery. During the demo week, she sourced foods from Full Belly Farm, Tomatero Farm, Capay Organic, Mindful Meats, Mary’s Chickens, and others.

Political Gains and Fears

As groups nationwide make the case for healthier school food, gains already in place are under threat by a Republican-controlled Congress and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is first and foremost a champion of private schools.

In 2010, Michelle Obama raised nutritional standards for school meals through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Signed by President Obama, the law ensures that meals include fruits and vegetables every day, more whole-grain foods, and less saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. A key part of the law, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), permits the poorest schools and districts to serve no-cost breakfast and lunch to all students without collecting household applications. The CEP has reduced administrative costs and paperwork for school staff and also eased the stigma kids feel when they’re singled out for free meals. But conservative House Republicans have already expressed an eagerness to reduce the number of schools eligible for the CEP and to roll back Obama’s improvements in nutrition.

Ever the optimist, Shils sees a silver lining. By hosting the lunch demos and considering an ongoing collaboration with Conscious Kitchen, the school district has taken an uncharacteristically bold step. “The political landscape has probably caused this to go forward in a way that it might not have a few months ago,” she says. “Everybody around us is doubling and tripling and quadrupling down and knowing that we have to fight for the future. There’s a big shift in the responsibility that we all have as stewards of our children.”

The Quest for a Better Burger

Earlier this year, Richmond catering chef Arnon Oren (pictured in top photo at left) cooked up Conscious Kitchen’s Better Burgers for students at Madera Elementary School. Chef Jason Fox did the honors at Peres Elementary, as both chefs took part in a week of farm-to-school lunch demos. Conscious Kitchen’s parent organization, Turning Green, and the environmental group Friends of the Earth together launched the Better Burger Challenge to encourage schools, workplaces, and restaurants to serve healthier and more ecologically friendly burgers. The Challenge got started during Earth Week in April and drew inspiration from the James Beard Foundation, Menus of Change, and Mushroom Council’s blended burger initiatives.

The guidelines define a better beef burger as one in which at least 30{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of the beef is replaced by mushrooms, legumes, or veggies, ideally USDA Certified Organic, and the beef is from grass-fed animals raised humanely on farms that use regenerative agriculture practices. A better veggie burger contains Certified Organic veggies, legumes, and grains. Ten college students from across the country who work to make these changes in their campus dining halls will be chosen to dine with Michael Pollan and five farmers at Murray Circle at Cavallo Point in Sausalito.

Conscious Kitchen Better Burgers

Serves 4

1½ pounds organic, grass-fed ground beef
1 carrot, peeled
1 beet, peeled
½ white onion, peeled
2–4 mushrooms
1–3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Black pepper

Grind raw vegetables in a meat grinder or a food processor (pulse setting). Mix vegetables and oil with ground beef (or other ground meat). Form into burger patties and season with salt and pepper. (Make one small patty and cook to check on the seasoning.) Pan fry or grill.

At Madera Elementary, the burgers were served on whole-wheat buns with fresh lettuce and kale. The kids added their own ketchup and mustard.

Edible East Bay’s associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, cooking, and gardens as tools for education and social change. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at and get in touch at rache(at)

For Oakland-based photographer Carmen Silva, interests in visual storytelling and positive social transformation run deep. In addition to photography, she produces commercials and videos, and advises social enterprises and NGOs on communication and messaging. You can reach her at csreach(at)