Parents and foodies have been given some hope that a dramatically changed school food system can become a reality in the form of a reform feasibility study.
“Rethinking School Lunch in Oakland” to improve nutrition in public schools was unveiled at Thursday night’s school board meeting by Jennifer LeBarre, director of Oakland Unified’s Nutrition Services.
Covering a number of areas - from The Dining Experience to Procurement to Waste Management - the feasibility study outlines ambitious goals and dreams for a revamped public school food system. At the center of the outlined recommendations is a central commissary to reduce delivery costs and a redesign of 14 kitchens into “School-Community Kitchens” that prepare student food during the day and that are available to the public year round, after-school and on weekends. Also included is a plan for a commissary farm/garden equipped with solar panels and a commercial composter.
Currently, three kitchens in the school district are responsible for 73 percent of all of the district’s meals. These kitchens produce pre-packed lunches and breakfasts that according to the study’s executive summary are re-thermalized in mobile cabinets at 64 satellite school lunch sites which do no cooking.
“We’ve reached the point where change can’t continue without drastic change in our facilities,” LeBarre said.
While several board members expressed interest in providing healthier meals and alignment with the goals of the plan, only Noel Gallo directly addressed the possibility that the new recommendations might take time and energy from other educational priorities.
“I applaud the grandiose dream, but I need to fix Fremont [High School]," Gallo said. "My priority has to be in the classroom. This will [incur] a time investment, a district investment. For example, even considering where for the farm site will take time."
The study comes nearly four years after a group of parents, who are now affiliated as the Oakland School Food Alliance, first joined to address what they see as unhealthy school lunches in the Oakland school district.
Now that the study has been unveiled, the staff at OUSD Nutrition Services will begin reaching out to community members, student leaders and union members. LeBarre said she hopes to bring the study back to the board in March for an approval vote.
If approved, fundraising to carry out the recommendations would begin immediately. Funding would likely come from a mix of bond measures, state and national school food money and philanthropists, officials say.
Zenobia Barlow, executive director and cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy,which led the study with $200,000 funding from S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the TomKat Charitable Trust, said the recommendations could be implemented as early as the first year after approval.
“We have to think in a larger scale. You have to consider that OUSD prepares seven million meals per year," Barlow said. "The scope can seem daunting, but something has to be done to address problems that have existed for decades. These shortfalls in nutrition are related to cognition issues. It’s not an either or situation."
"It’s a transformative plan,” food alliance member Allison Rodman said. “The main issue is timing and implementation. This will take 10 years to complete.
"As a parent advocate, I support the work that nutrition services has done and continues to do, but, we live in parallel universes where on one hand we have to do fundraising and big thinking and simultaneously do what we can within the 10 year period to make the food as good as we can for our kids now.”
The study marks a new front in the district’s battle for healthier food, reflecting the larger sea-change in the American relationship to food beyond core business to health and healing.
The study was released the same day that the USDA announced school lunch guidelines signaling a further shift from the dreaded school lunches of yesterday.