OUSD Looks to Revamp School Lunch Program

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It may have slipped slightly under the radar, but a few weeks ago the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) passed an ambitious $1.5 billion Facilities Master Plan that outlines a wide range of projects the district wants to implement in the next five to ten years. Included in the plan is an estimated $44 million that OUSD hopes to budget toward revamping its school lunch program.

The proposal is based on the recommendations of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, and it sets some far-reaching goals, including the creation of a central commissary kitchen and adjacent 1.5-acre farm, plus the refurbishing of dozens of outdated school kitchen facilities.

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According to Zenobia Barlow, the Center for Ecoliteracy’s executive director, Oakland’s nutrition program has already seen tremendous improvement under food service director Jennifer LeBarre, who during her tenure has instituted “Meatless Mondays” and banned soda, trans fats, and high-sodium foods.

Nevertheless, significant structural obstacles continue to hinder the district’s 300 food service workers from being able to provide fresh, healthy food for OUSD’s 38,000 students (70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch). So when the center approached the district with a proposal to conduct an in-depth feasibility study — a look at what realistic steps could be taken to reform the district’s school lunch program, and an analysis of how much that would cost — both LeBarre and OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith embraced the idea.

Barlow says she saw right away that OUSD’s leadership were making school nutrition a top priority — this at a time when many cash-strapped districts might cite economic hardship as a reason to put off these kinds of reforms.

“I think in Oakland there's a real profound appreciation about the degree to which many young people are arriving at school not really fit to learn,” she said, citing the students’ lack of access to healthy meals.

Barlow noted that the Center for Ecoliteracy has been conducting school lunch reform seminars for many years. In addition, when putting together the Rethinking School Lunch Feasibility Study, the center solicited input from experts in the field, like Steve Marshall — head of an Oakland-based food service design and consulting firm — and David Binkle, the deputy director of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s award-winning food services program.

The center used its Rethinking School Lunch planning framework to come up with a plan for OUSD.
  • The center used its "Rethinking School Lunch" planning framework to come up with a plan for OUSD.
In the end, the study’s findings painted a rather bleak picture: Fewer than one in four Oakland public schools have a working kitchen. Even in schools that do have functional kitchens, most of the equipment is so old that it no longer works. Consequently, much of the “cooking” that takes place consists of little more than popping pre-packaged foods into a microwave.

The Center’s recommendations for reform hinge on the creation of a central commissary kitchen in West Oakland and, attached to that facility, a 1.5-acre farm that would eventually supply a portion of the district’s fresh produce needs.

“The general wisdom in the business is that a central kitchen is the most economical way to function. Some things can best be done in a centralized way,” Barlow said.

She explained that ingredients for a pizza might be prepped at the central kitchen and then trucked over to each school, where kitchen staff would assemble and bake the pizzas fresh onsite — this in contrast to sticking a pre-assembled frozen pizza into the microwave.

Meanwhile, the approved Facilities Master Plan also includes a proposal to refurbish 17 fully-functional cooking kitchens and 58 “finishing” kitchens. (Barlow noted that about half of the schools in the district weren’t designed to have kitchens at all — obviously it would be impossible to cook the food onsite in those cases.) In addition, Barlow said there are tentative plans to transform fourteen of the refurbished facilities into school-community kitchens — “kitchens that moonlight,” whether as venues for culinary training for youth or as micro-business incubators.

Barlow estimated that the creation of the central kitchen and farm, the school kitchen refurbishing, and the creation of a limited number of community kitchens would cost approximately $27 million.

During its upcoming June 27 meeting, the OUSD school board will likely vote on whether to put a $475 million bond measure on the November 6, 2012 ballot. If the proposed bond measure were to pass, the district would then need to decide how much of that money to allocate to its nutrition services program.

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