Study: Overhaul School Lunch in Oakland



School lunch reform is a hot-button national topic, with reformers like Michelle Obama and Alice Waters counterbalanced by budget cuts and Big Food lobbyists (the gang that successfully convinced the USDA a thimbleful of pizza sauce is a vegetable). Amidst all the sturm und drang, a comprehensive local study of the Oakland Unified School District’s lunch program was recently released, and it concluded that it’s in dire need of an overhaul.

Every day, OUSD serves 37,000 meals, 6.6 million meals are served each year, and some students are fed five times a day (breakfast, lunch, early dinner, and two snacks). Key among the study’s findings was that the district’s kitchen facilities and equipment are woefully inadequate to keep up with this level of need.

For instance, the chief central kitchen at Prescott Elementary School was designed to prepare 8,000 meals a day, but it is currently preparing 20,000, well over twice its capabilities. Prescott is one of three off-site kitchens that prepare almost three-quarters of the district’s meals.

On a somewhat positive note, the study did find that the OUSD had exceeded the USDA’s dietary guidelines. However, as the federal policies themselves need to be reformed, the study suggests Oakland could still use a nutritional overhaul. In keeping with the beliefs of OUSD Nutrition Services Director Jennifer LeBarre, the report recommends cooking 60 percent of all meals from scratch, avoiding high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats, and sourcing produce organically and locally.

The study, a joint effort of the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Oakland Unified School District, was the result of more than a year of intensive analysis. Rather than focus on one small area of the district’s food system, “Rethinking School Lunch Oakland” took a holistic approach, reviewing ten components that provide a fairly thorough portrait: facilities, finances, food and health, wellness policy, teaching and learning, the dining experience, procurement, waste management, professional development, and marketing and communications.

LeBarre and the Center for Ecoliteracy presented the study to the Oakland school board, and are now hoping for some real-world change. First on their wishlist is the creation of a 44,000 square-foot central commissary; a facilities and equipment upgrade to create 17 from-scratch cooking kitchens; the designation of 14 “community kitchens” that can be used by outside groups after school hours; and the creation of a 1.5-acre farm to grow produce for the district.

LeBarre said initial feedback from the school board has been largely supportive, and OUSD superintendent Tony Smith has long been an advocate of school lunch reform. She said the proposed changes would be tied into the district’s facilities master plan.

Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, said this study was coincidentally well-timed, considering the current national focus on diabetes and the childhood obesity epidemic. “I’m kind of ambivalent about needing a diet-related epidemic to get something done,” she said. “Yet I can’t deny how exciting it is that we may be able to implement significant changes here.”

To learn more, an executive summary of the study can be downloaded here.

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