Oakland Unified School District has joined an initiative to redefine cafeteria food as locally-sourced, farm-to-table cuisine that's nutritious and delicious.
The move is part of OUSD’s participation in the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP), an effort that aims to improve how public institutions source food by stressing nutrition, local economies, animal welfare, valued workforce and environmental sustainability.
“It’s not only about the quality of good food for school children,” said Shaniece Alexander, executive director of the Oakland Food Policy Council, “but the ways we get the food.”
After Los Angeles and San Francisco, Oakland was one of the first cities to adopt GFPP for public schools, and has been working with the program for the past three years.
Initially, OUSD received a rating of 2 out of 5 stars, but since then, the district began California Thursdays, which brings one locally-sourced lunch per week to all 20,000 kids in the city's school system. Some changes have been integrated into menus throughout the week, such as sourcing grains from Community Grains and vegetables from Pacific Rim Produce.
“A lot of our students are living in food deserts where they don’t have access to good and healthy food,” said OUSD nutrition director Jennifer LeBarre. “We’ve found that schools are where many of our students can access that. So we really believe it’s our moral obligation to provide the best food.”
OUSD initiated other changes as well, now offering four meals a day, including Breakfast After the Bell.
Many students could not attend a pre-class breakfast owing to conflicting schedules or to a perceived stigma in receiving free or reduced meals separate from other students. The solution was to make breakfast a communal meal that's available to all students after the school day begins.
“Each change drives up participation,” said LeBarre, who said students who are fed and healthy are "better able to focus.”
Oakland Unified recently received a rating of four out of five stars from the GFPP and has been named a Good Food Institutional Hero.
District officials intend to do more as part of a ten-year plan, that will see the construction of a central kitchen at a 60,000-square-foot property in West Oakland. The kitchen, located at 2850 West St., will act as the central hub for food preparation and distribution.
Once the facility is up and running, it's projected to cut OUSD’s use of prepackaged foods by 80%, replacing them with freshly made, locally sourced, ethically sound foods.
Aside from a kitchen, storage, and delivery area, the facility will host a garden and three classrooms offering instruction in nutrition, agriculture and the culinary arts through 8th grade.
For high school students they will offer courses to get students college and community ready, along with job training in food-related fields for Oaklanders 18 and older. Readers can view plans for the site at OUSDthecenter.org.
A portion of construction funds will come from $475 million OUSD received in Measure J funding, a bond measure passed in 2012 that allocated the money for general facility upgrading. But with 86 K through 12 schools and 32 district authorized charter schools, $475 million goes quick, said LeBarre.
“Along with the work that we’re doing [on the central kitchen], we’re upgrading facilities throughout the district,” she said. “Some of our schools don’t even have kitchens.”
“It’s a long game,” said Alexander, but she’s optimistic the success of the Good Food Purchasing Program at OUSD can serve as a model for other institutions in the East Bay.
“We want to continue seeing programs like this expand out to hospitals, to government institutions in Alameda County, even to private businesses like hotels,” said Alexander, “until procuring food from ethical sources that treat food in a healthy way becomes a way of life.”