OUSD Looks to Revamp School Lunch Program

Plus the Phat Beets collective's new North Oakland farmers' market.



The Oakland Unified School District recently 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including the creation of a central commissary kitchen and adjacent 1.5-acre farm, plus the refurbishing of dozens of outdated school kitchen facilities.

According to Zenobia Barlow, the Center for Ecoliteracy's executive director, Oakland's food program has already seen tremendous improvement under Nutrition Services Director Jennifer LeBarre, who during her tenure has instituted "Meatless Mondays" and banned soda and high-sodium foods.

Nevertheless, significant obstacles continue to prevent the district's three hundred food service workers from providing 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.

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 those 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 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,' Barlow said. "Some things can best be done in a centralized way." 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.

Meanwhile, the approved Facilities Master Plan also includes a proposal to refurbish 17 fully functional cooking kitchens and 58 "finishing" kitchens. 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.

At 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 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.

Phat Beets Launches New North Oakland Farmers' Market

On Saturday, the food justice collective Phat Beets Produce celebrated the launch of its new North Oakland Flea N' Farmers' Market at 942 Stanford Avenue. The market had already moved to its new location on June 2, but the organization hosted an all-day Juneteenth celebration on Saturday — during the market's regular 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours — as a livelier and more official kickoff.

In fact, the Phat Beets Saturday market has existed for about two years already, but was previously held a couple blocks away, outside the North Oakland Arlington Medical Center. According to Seema Rupani, a member of the Oakland-based collective, the availability of an abandoned building at the corner of Stanford and Lowell provided a unique opportunity to expand the market and to hold it at a more visible space.

New features will include a healthy cafe and a commercial kitchen space, both of which are being created by a small cooperative that's partnering with Phat Beets. The kitchen, in particular, is meant to provide economic stimulus for the area, as aspiring food entrepreneurs will be able use the space as a business incubator. Both projects are still a few months away from coming to fruition, Rupani explained. Also providing economic opportunity will be the flea market, where vendors can set up a stall for a mere $5, with priority given to those who live in the neighborhood.

What won't change will be Phat Beets' commitment to providing fresh, healthy food for a North Oakland neighborhood where those options are extremely limited. Rupani said the area doesn't quite qualify as a "food desert," but it doesn't have a fully functioning grocery store. "People shop at corner stores, or else they have to go to Berkeley," she explained.

The Saturday market will feature affordably priced produce from four small organic Bay Area farms — mostly those that are owned and operated by people of color. Low-income families suffering from diet-related diseases will be able to make purchases using vouchers. The site will also function as the pickup point for Phat Beets' Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, which are also available to low-income families at a subsidized rate.

In addition, Phat Beets will host a variety of educational workshops at the market. On Saturday, June 23, a three-week series on "Deconstructing Oppression in the Food System" will kick off, running from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each week.