A movement to improve school nutrition

As public schools face repeated budget cuts, many people focus on the effects on teachers, academics, and extracurricular activities. While these are undoubtedly pressing issues, there is another part of the school day that is often overlooked: nutrition. Over the past few years, Berkeley’s school district has made national news with its school lunch improvements. Now, Berkeley’s neighbor Oakland is trying to get a food revolution going, too. The Oakland Unified School District serves about 6 and a half million meals per year. This volume makes the task of overhauling the school food system a daunting one. While Berkeley’s school district has 9,400 students, with about 40 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch, Oakland Unified has 38,000 students, with over 70 percent qualifying. At some schools, this number is over 90 percent.

District-wide, Oakland schools serve about 9,000 breakfasts per day, 21,000 lunches, 8,500 snacks, and now 500 suppers. Given this high demand, Oakland’s school district recently undertook a study on how to improve its Nutrition Services department, responsible for school meals. The report, a partnership with the Center for Eco Literacy, recommends facilities improvements, fresher and more organic ingredients, and the construction of a large central commissary with an organic farm. In a district where many students eat up to five times a day at school, these are big issues.

At 5:30pm at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland, the first wave of kids is coming into the cafeteria for supper. Kindergarteners come in first, toting backpacks and showing off their missing front teeth as they line up to get chili, cornbread, vegetables, and fresh fruit. Prescott is one of nine schools in the district that have started serving supper this year. It’s part of a free afterschool program that about half of Prescott’s students participate in. The cafeteria is noisy, but the kids seem relaxed – eating, playing games like Connect Four or Jenga, or just hanging out.

Afterschool program coordinator Jason Peters says the hot supper, which comes at the end of the afternoon’s activities, has had a noticeable positive effect on the students. He says there is less fighting and aggression this year, and the kids are showing more patience with each other. “Hunger is stress on your body,” he says.  “And when those things combined with the doubt that can come into a child’s mind about whether they’re going to get fed or not, it leads into their behavior.”

Ruth Woodruff is a founding member of the Oakland School Food Alliance, a group of public school parents who have been pushing for healthier food at their children’s schools. She lives with her husband and three kids in the upper middle class Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland and says she pays a lot of attention to what she feeds her own family. “We stay away from processed foods at home,” she says. “We don’t eat anything we can’t pronounce, we try to eat locally and sustainably … whole foods essentially.  And that’s not at all what was being served in Oakland.”

She says originally she was just interested in getting more nutritious food into her own son’s elementary school. But as she looked deeper into the issues, she saw there was more to do. In addition to medical concerns like obesity and diabetes that stem from unhealthy food, a lot of kids in Oakland simply don’t get enough food. An empty belly makes focus and concentration difficult. The stress of hunger can lead to depression, anxiety, even PTSD. As a result, Woodruff and other reform proponents see school food as not just a nutritional issue, but a social justice issue. 

“This goes across racial and socioeconomic lines, everybody is concerned about the food we’re feeding our children,” she says.

She also believes that school districts in the foodie-centric Bay Area should be at the forefront of reform. “We get to eat some of the most wonderful food on earth, and it really should be something that’s available to all of our citizens, especially our children, “ she says.

Oakland Unified’s Nutrition Services Director Jennifer LeBarre is in full agreement. In her eight years on the job, she’s consistently fought for improvements in school meals. The changes have been incremental, but LeBarre is proud of them. In 2001, Oakland was the first school district in the state to ban the sale of soda and candy on campus. LeBarre has instituted vegetarian meals on “Meatless Mondays.” There are now salad bars in 62 of the district’s schools, and weekly farmers’ markets at 22 schools.

Parent Deandra Kess-McDougle, whose first-grade son often eats breakfast, lunch, and supper at Prescott Elementary, says she really appreciates the focus on healthy food. She says they already avoided soda and candy at home, but that daily conversations with her son about what he eats at school have affected her own cooking. “They taught me actually how to give him more vegetables,” she says, “And how to focus his mind on the four food groups and stuff like that.”

Behind the Prescott school cafeteria is one of the district’s two central kitchens. Here, 20,000 meals are prepared every day – in a facility that was designed for 8,000. Moves toward automation and individual packaging in the school food industry, plus declining enrollments in Oakland’s schools over the past 20 years, have meant that individual school kitchens became financially unsustainable. So, most of the district’s food preparation has been shifted to centralized kitchens, where a lot of the food comes in already made.

Jennifer LeBarre says one of the things the recent study found was that

Nutrition Services employees are not under skilled when it comes to cooking, they are under utilized. “For years, we’d been paying our cooks to open up boxes of frozen food and put them on trays and stick them into the oven,” she says. Yet, in surveying the actual skills of the school cooks the study found a wealth of existing skills and recipes.

The study also found a pressing need for facility and equipment upgrades. Here at Prescott, a section of the kids’ playground had to be removed recently to make room for a loading dock. The kitchen itself is crowded with boxes and heavy equipment, much of it old or outdated.

The dishwasher has been broken for at least three years, but John Johnson, a 30-year employee of Oakland Unified’s Nutrition Services, still manages a smile as he handwashes some huge metal pans. He says he would definitely welcome upgrades to the kitchen facilities. “We could have more room to put things instead of piling everything in one corner of the space,” he says.

The completed Nutrition Services study calls for changes like creating a 1.5-acre organic farm/garden and building a new central kitchen. Fourteen unused school kitchens will be turned into school-community kitchens, which the public can access year-round.

Now the district just has to find a way to pay for it.

OUSD has some existing partnerships with community organizations, and is looking for private funders. The school board may also put a bond measure on the November ballot. OUSD spokesman Troy Flint says that bond would probably be $500 million. He says it’s a difficult decision. “Even though these are worthy projects, it’s a really treacherous time to put forth a bond measure, especially in a city like Oakland, which has relatively high poverty levels and high taxation already,” he says. “But this is an investment in our future.”

Still, Jennifer LeBarre says she feels optimistic. She perceives a burgeoning national movement toward school food reform, and wants Oakland to be a part of it. “People are really concerned about children’s health, and specifically around the national school lunch program – if we can’t find funding sources now, then there’s a big problem in the world,” she says.

Parents like Deandra Kess-McDougle say the investment is worth it. She’s seen the difference herself: “If we see them getting nutritious food at school, then that would change our recipes at home, because it’s changed mine, a lot.” 

This story originally aired on June 29, 2012.