Last week, food service directors representing 21 of California's 58 counties gathered at the Oakland Museum of California for "Rethinking School Lunch," a conference on school lunch reform organized by the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy.
The agenda included talks on the nutritional benefits of made-from-scratch food and how to purchase ingredients in a cost-effective manner, and a hands-on lunch activity in which participants prepped and cooked healthy meals including vegetarian pizza and African-inspired chicken stew.
The center's executive director, Zenobia Barlow, estimated that conference attendees are responsible for serving about 300 million school meals in the course of a given year. It's noteworthy, then, that the day kicked off with a panel discussion featuring representatives of the Oakland Unified School District, including Superintendent Tony Smith and food services director Jennifer LeBarre.
Of course, OUSD recently greenlighted a $1.5 billion Facility Masters Plan that includes roughly $44 million earmarked for an ambitious revamping of its school lunch program — a proposal based on the recommendations of a feasibility study conducted by the Center for Ecoliteracy itself. But it's also the same district that, until those recommendations become reality, finds itself facing a rather bleak situation: As of right now, fewer than one in four public schools in Oakland has a functional kitchen, and even the ones that are functional are severely outdated. By the district's own admission, a lot of the cooking that takes place consists of reheating prepackaged frozen foods in a microwave.
Nevertheless, the overall message of the panel discussion was that Oakland's school lunch reforms have been a success story — even if they've been slow in the making. LeBarre stressed changes that have already taken place: 80 percent of the prepackaged food that was being served at the schools with working kitchens has been eliminated — and most of the remaining prepackaged food is at least being made in the city's own central kitchen facilities. About 43 percent of the fruits and vegetables being served now come from local farms. And, although USDA guidelines allow for canned fruits and vegetables, LeBarre says the district is committed to serving fresh fruits and veggies at every meal.
In any case, there's no overstating the importance of the issue. As Superintendent Smith put it, "If our kids are well fed ... they have a chance to be successful."
But for OUSD, much of whether its plans to take the changes it's already implemented to the next level — primarily through the creation of an $18 million central prep kitchen and other facilities upgrades — is dependent on Oakland voters: Those funds will likely only be available if Measure J, the $475 million bond measure on next month's ballot, passes.
Peralta Junction Kicks Off
Peralta Junction, a new pop-up event kicking off this weekend in a vacant lot at the intersection of West Grand Avenue and Mandela Parkway, transcends easy categorization: It's an experimental art installation. It's the site of a 1920s-style traveling carnival. It's an outdoor performance space, an artisan retail market, and — of particular interest to What the Fork — a weekly gathering of mobile food vendors.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the site will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Subsequently, the event organizers will also host kid-friendly after-school workshops on Thursdays and Fridays, Thursday movie nights, and a variety of Friday night community events.
Leslie Pritchett, a public art consultant and one of the Peralta Junction's organizers, explained that she has been using the term "pop-up creative commons" to describe the project — "pop-up" because of the event's temporary nature, from October 6 until December 15; "creative commons" because the idea is to have all kinds of creative people bringing the shared space to life.
The project started out as a partnership between Pritchett and a San Francisco-based designers' and artists' collective called One Hat One Hand that had been looking for a new home for its interactive art installation, M.T. Pocket's Traveling Midway of Curiosities and Delights (The Midway, for short) — a riff on an old-fashioned traveling carnival, complete with tented booths and custom-designed games. The Midway's retro carny theme established the overall visual aesthetic of Peralta Junction, and before long more community members signed on to contribute additional performance and retail elements.
According to Pritchett, food has always been a central part of the concept: "Food's the glue that helps people connect in some way." So each Saturday, from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m., about four food trucks will set up shop in front of the site. Karen Hester, the proprietor of Bites Off Broadway, is curating the rotating lineup of vendors, which, during Saturday's grand opening, will include Roderick's BBQ (the four-wheeled descendent of a now-closed Pleasanton barbecue joint) and Blue Saigon (Vietnamese fusion cuisine).
In subsequent weeks, familiar favorites like Doc's of the Bay, Fist of Flour, and Sunrise Deli Falafel will make appearances.
Apart from the trucks, a variety of non-mobile food vendors will sell their wares on site all day on Saturdays and Sundays. Those popping up this weekend include Angel Cakes, Espresso Express, Pepples Donuts, and Peter's Kettle Corn.