Oakland Headed for a School Food Overhaul
By Sarah Henry
Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District’s nutrition services director, has a dream. Looking ahead 10 years,lebarre_1 she imagines visiting the district’s central kitchen where fresh food is prepared from scratch for all district campuses using organic produce from the onsite farm. Each school has a salad bar, kitchen equipment is state of the art, and every student has access to nourishing, wholesome food for breakfast, lunch, and—in some cases—supper, too.
A gal can dream, right? Well, LeBarre and her partners in improving Oakland schools’ food are dreaming big, and betting that voters will share their vision. On the ballot this November: an ambitious plan to overhaul Oakland Unified School District’s inadequate and antiquated school food system, which serves 6.5 million meals a year to 38,000 students, 70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (in some schools that figure is closer to 90 percent).
Change can’t come soon enough. There is growing concern in Oakland, as across the country, about children’s health issues (such as skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes), the quality of food in the national school lunch program (remember the pink slime controversy earlier this year?), and the twin challenges of obesity and hunger on the playground. The notable voices of First Lady Michelle Obama, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and local restaurateur Alice Waters, among others, have been advocating for a significant school food fix. LeBarre, a veteran school food provider, sums up the current climate this way: “If not now, when?”
Money, of course, is frequently a major obstacle to large-scale change. But on June 27, after passing a $1.5 billion Facilities Master Plan that outlines a wide range of project improvements the district wants to implement in the next 5 to 10 years, the OUSD school board voted to put a $475 million bond measure on the November 6 ballot. The plan earmarks an estimated $44 million toward revamping school food infrastructure so that school kitchen managers might improve cafeteria options.
Jennifer Le Barre
Recommendations for sweeping reform come courtesy of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, which earlier this year released a detailed feasibility study that, if implemented, would amount to a massive makeover for the OUSD school food program. “Lots of that vision originated in Oakland,” explains Zenobia Barlow, Center for Ecoliteracy’s executive director. “We came up with a plan—with and for them—a budget, a road map, and a time line so that they could accomplish what they want to do. The district is too busy and cash-strapped to do that. But they are in the driver’s seat.”
The proposal’s recommendations revolve around the creation of a new, green central commissary with a 1.5-acre farm in West Oakland that could supply a portion of the district’s fresh produce needs. A central kitchen is considered the most economical and efficient way to prepare school food.
Also among the feasibility study’s recommendations: plans to refurbish 17 fully functioning cooking kitchens and 58 “finishing” kitchens, where meals prepped at the commissary can be cooked and served. Currently, the district’s chief central kitchen at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland, which was designed to prepare 8,000 meals a day, is tasked with turning out 20,000 meals every day.
Perhaps the most innovative approach proposed in the study is the development of 14 school-based community kitchens dotted throughout the school district. These “kitchens that moonlight” are envisaged as places where budding edible entrepreneurs and local-food-focused organizations could work, for a fee, during after-school hours, thus generating income for the district. They might also provide culinary training for youth.
holdingonions_1Seeking a model for the nation
For several years now, the Center for Ecoliteracy, an educational foundation, has run its Rethinking School Lunch program, which includes workshops, resource guides, professional development and consultations with schools on gardens, food service, and integrating sustainability concepts into curricula. But the group sought to do more. It specifically wanted to work with a large, urban school district with a significant need, where school meal decisions are made on a district level, and where district-wide modernization could serve as a model for the nation.
Oakland met those criteria. And it had a new superintendent, Tony Smith, who exhibited a commitment to innovation and equity that Barlow admired (even if his hands were tied on the money front). It had an award-winning nutrition services director, LeBarre, who had worked her way up through the ranks and consistently made improvements in the cafeterias in a district with scant resources to do so. And it had an active parent group, the Oakland School Food Alliance, that was fed up with school lunch.
The center’s study to rehab the district’s food program came with a detailed analysis of how much that would cost and suggestions for where funding might come from to pay for the upgrades. All parties recognized the potential impact school food reform could have on academic performance. As any schoolteacher will tell you, hungry kids are less able to concentrate and absorb information than children who are well nourished.
The feasibility study cost $200,000, and was funded by the TomKat Charitable Trust and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. The center has received follow-up funding from both granting groups to work with the district on implementing the recommendations.
Of course, finding the big bucks to overhaul Oaklands’ school cafeterias at a time when public education continues to get hit with huge cutbacks is another matter. That’s where the bond measure could kick-start the commissary and cafeteria campaign. Other significant obstacles to change include lobbying efforts by “Big Food” interests—the folks who bullied the USDA into counting pizza sauce as a vegetable.
Open to Change
Still, Oakland has slowly but steadily been trying to make school food better. LeBarre banned soda and candy before the state mandated such action, outlawed trans fat and high-sodium food, introduced vegetarian options on “Meatless Mondays,” provided universal breakfast, and increased local purchasing, particularly of produce.
Already, the district has salad bars in 67 cafeterias, 37 schools participate in the nutrition program Harvest of the Month, and 22 farmers’ markets sell produce after school. LeBarre works in a foam-free environment, has reduced chocolate milk to just once a week, and is trying to rid her district of the dreaded spork, a cafeteria implement that few think enhances the eating experience.
All this, and yet LeBarre would be the first to concede the district has a long way to go. She battles significant obstacles to turning things around, and not just economic ones: fewer than one in four Oakland schools has a working kitchen; even in schools with kitchens, most of the equipment is so old it no longer works; some kitchens don’t even have a sink, making installing a salad bar impossible. Many of the 300 food-service workers at Oakland schools do little more than rip the plastic off prepackaged, processed foods and pop them in the microwave. Yet a survey of these same workers found many had cooking skills that were simply not being utilized.
LeBarre is quick to point out kitchen managers in her team who are open to innovation. Employees like Gwen Taylor, who runs the cafeteria at Oakland Technical High School, an open campus where lunch is offered but most students cross the street to choose from a bevy of fast-food options on Broadway. Still Taylor has made headway with her student body with a grab-n-go breakfast option. Kitchen manager Frances Terrell at Castlemont High School started a model campaign to reduce cafeteria food waste, and Silvia Fong at Esperanza Elementary piloted a popular scratch-made pizza option on the lunch menu.
The promise of improved school food is what motivates parent Ruth Woodruff, a founder of the Oakland School Food Alliance, a diverse, grassroots group. Woodruff lives with her husband and three kids in the affluent enclave of Rockridge. She is the kind of mom who shuns highly processed foods and avoids anything with ingredients she doesn’t recognize or can’t pronounce in favor of local, sustainable farmers’ market picks.
When her eldest started at Chabot Elementary, she was appalled by what was served for school lunch. Pretty soon she realized it was a district-wide dilemma. Initially concerned that LeBarre might be a bureaucrat who couldn’t see beyond all the government red tape, Woodruff says she appreciates the hurdles LeBarre faces and respects the progress she has made in spite of them.
Woodruff points out that many parents—regardless of income or cultural background—are concerned about the quality of food children eat at school. “Here in the Bay Area we have access to some of the best food around,” she says. “And it should be available to everyone, especially our children.” School food in Oakland isn’t going to get better overnight, Woodruff knows. “But maybe by the time my baby starts kindergarten we’ll have overhauled school food.”
Sarah Henry is a local food writer and the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Her school lunch stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Great Schools, Civil Eats, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s Bay Area Bites. She previously profiled the OUSD’s farm stands in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible East Bay.