Last week, food service directors and staff members 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 day’s agenda included talks on the nutritional benefits of made-from-scratch school food and how to purchase ingredients in a cost-effective manner, as well as a hands-on outdoor cooking activity in which participants prepped and cooked lunch — healthy meals ranging from vegetarian pizza to African-inspired chicken stew.
- Luke Tsai
- Food service employees had a chance to test out some new recipes.
The Center for Ecoliteracy’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, food services director Jennifer LeBarre.
Of course, OUSD recently greenlighted a $1.5 billion Facility Masters Plan that includes roughly $44 million bookmarked 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 a district that, until those recommendations are implemented, finds itself facing a rather bleak situation: As of right now, less than one in four public schools in Oakland has a functional kitchen, and even the ones that are functional are severely outdated.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 on school campuses across the city consists of reheating prepackaged frozen foods in a microwave.
Nevertheless, the overall message during the panel discussion was that Oakland’s school lunch reforms have been a success story — even if it’s been slow in the making. LeBarre stressed changes that have already taken place: 80% 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% of the fruits and vegetables being served 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.
- Luke Tsai
- Displayed prominently at the "Rethinking School Lunch" conference, a sign supporting Measure J, the bond measure that would fund OUSD's proposed school lunch reforms.
In any case, there was no understating 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.Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.