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Oakland’s school food movement: What will it take to fix a broken system?

By Katy Murphy
Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 at 6:31 pm in families, health, students.

THURSDAY UPDATE: I meant to link to a recent blog post on the issue of school food in Oakland: “The Schoolyard Foodie: Props to the People.” The author, Melrose Leadership Academy teacher Gehry Oatey, writes for Teacher, Revised.


photo of Glenview Elementary School students by D. Ross Cameron/Staff.

A story in tomorrow’s Tribune looks at grassroots efforts to give every child access to fresh produce and a healthy meal, as well as the Oakland school district’s progress on that front. What are your ideas?

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  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    Today’s story reported that Jennifer LaBarre, OUSD’s Nutrition Services director, and School Food Alliance members would like to do a feasibility study before they any major changes can really take place. Unfortunately, they are unable because the “…cost can be well over $100,000, money that cannot be carved out of LeBarre’s budget.”

    But maybe Jerry Brown can come to the rescue of the public school district in the city in which he lives and ask some of his casino and private equity firm connections to pay for the study.

    http://www.sacbee.com/static/weblogs/capitolalertlatest/026164.html

    From the article about donations to OMI and OSA:

    Donors backing one or both of the Oakland schools have included oil giants, banks, mortgage lenders, utilities, health plans and telecom giants, and Indian tribes with gambling interests, many of which are regulated and investigated by his department.

    Other big donors include:

    - General Atlantic Corporation, a private equity giant, $450,000.

    - Lytton Rancheria in Santa Rosa and United Auburn Indian Community, both casino operators: $250,000 each.

    - PG & E, $75,000

    - Wal-Mart Stores, $50,000 [this was probably the Walton Family Foundation]

    - Occidental Petroleum: $25,000

    - Safeway Foundation, $25,000.

    - Clorox Company $40,000; the Clorox Company Foundation, $100,000.

    - Dow Chemical Foundation, $10,000.

    - Hearst Foundation, $150,000 into to Oakland’s Military Institute, while Hearst heir William R. Hearst III personally donated another $50,000.

    Heck, if those people are willing to donate millions of dollars to two schools which serve fewer than 950 kids, I’m sure Brown can coax them to pay for a feasibility study which will certainly benefit the 27,000 kids who receive their lunches from Ms. LeBarre’s department everyday.

    If that comes to pass, you heard it here first.

  • Alice Spearman

    OUSD needs to apply and compete for these grants, which they do a poor job if any for the small grants, which add up. Nutrition services really does not havw to do a feasability study, they know where they are deficient. I have asked repeatedly why the food they serve is not tasty and full of empty caloties. My parents have said that because most of the students served are on free and reduced lunch, they will feed the children anything. If the district would again put in full kitchens in every school, they would be forced to serve palatable and nutricious food. This is just my opinion, maybe all of you who use this blog would complain at board meetings

  • Caroline

    This is an area I’ve been involved in as a parent volunteer advocate for years here in San Francisco.
    I’m assuming that situations are similar in Oakland to those here across the bay.

    The cost of putting full kitchens in every school would be eye-popping. Of course, it would come right out of the classrooms, unless some angel comes along to donate millions upon millions upon millions of dollars, specifically earmarked for that purpose. The history of school kitchens is that the National School Lunch Program used to provide funding for districts to maintain, repair and upgrade kitchens, but the Reagan Administration (presidential, not gubernatorial) ended that.

    It is worth noting, though, that the days when schools DID have working kitchens were still the days of those classic lunch lady/mystery-meat-in-brown-glop stereotypes — it’s not really that there were good old days of delicious, wholesome cafeteria food. One issue is that to get trained, skilled chefs would cost considerably more than the caf staff is paid now. So on top of the vast sums to rebuild school kitchens would be the vast sums to keep them in good working order and pay skilled culinary staff.

    As a middle ground between the packaged processed food, prepared elsewhere and shipped, that we have now in SFUSD and that you may have in OUSD and the ideal of delicious scratch-cooked on-site meals (an unrealistic fantasy, unfortunately), SF activists are starting to look at a bond measure that would create a functional central kitchen, where meals could at least be cooked in San Francisco and shipped to the school sites — not that unrealistic in our small city. The current concept would also fund a culinary academy high school.

    I’m just sharing in case this provides any inspiration in Oakland.

    It all boils down to money (and if one more person tells me “it doesn’t take more money; all it takes is THE WILL,” he/she risks getting slapped). It takes MONEY.

    By the way, Chef Ann Cooper’s improvements in Berkeley Unified have often been mischaracterized in that area. Berkeley absolutely had more money, at least considerably more than San Francisco — there’s an extra tax called Meals for Needy Pupils that provides an extra chunk of funding for Student Nutrition, plus a nice subsidy from the Chez Panisse Foundation. For some reason, that crucial information has frequently been downplayed and misreported.

  • Katy Murphy

    In addition, as I reported in a profile of Ann Cooper two years ago, the Berkeley school district initially subsidized the nutrition program with general fund money — about $350K a year.

    Cooper says the Berkeley nutrition program no longer receives general fund money, and I’m not sure if the Chez Panisse Foundation is still supporting it financially, or to what degree (the foundation paid for Cooper’s salary, but she’s obviously no longer there).

    From what I’ve learned, there are loads of up-front costs with this kind of transformation, from training people to work safely with perishable food to buying new equipment, etc. But, even in Berkeley, much of the food is prepared centrally and distributed to the schools.

    Cooper says the Berkeley program is now self-sustaining, though she didn’t mention the tax that Caroline wrote about.

    As far as Oakland is concerned, this would seem like an important cause to fund, from a philanthropic standpoint. As Melissa Newell from Chabot Elementary School (and the Oakland School Food Alliance) pointed out, “For many kids, this is the basis of their nutrition on any given day.”

    Of course, there are so many other important causes, too.

  • Caroline

    I really admire Chef Ann, who has been very supportive of efforts to improve school food overall. But the MASSIVE press coverage of her often got it wrong and claimed that she did this with no more funding than other school districts get. (The reporters who got that wrong have to line up for their slaps from me along with everyone who says “all it takes is the will.”)

    It’s also important to note that the number of students eating the Berkeley caf food DID NOT INCREASE after Chef Ann transformed the food. Whatever that tells us, it shouldn’t be swept under the rug either.

    Meals for Needy Pupils was a tax that California municipalities were offered the option of presenting to voters in the ’70s, pre-Prop. 13. I believe it was never on the ballot here in S.F., and I don’t know about Oakland. Berkeley and Santa Cruz both have it. That’s not as dry and boring as it seems; it’s crucial information in looking at school districts’ meal programs.