Oakland gets serious about school food

Staff Photojournalist
photo by D. Ross Cameron/Staff

For the first time in 15 years, the federal government has rewritten the rules for what must — and can’t — be served in its public school lunchrooms. Meanwhile, some OUSD staff, parents and local organizations are formulating some plans of their own, which they presented at the last school board meeting.

It was well into the evening, and some of us joked about having to sit through the presentation on an empty stomach. It later dawned on me how remarkable that was: the thought of cafeteria food inducing an appetite, rather than ruining it!

Although the presentation coincided with the new federal standards, it wasn’t focused on compliance. (Speaking of compliance, you’ll find more information about the new USDA rules here.) Instead, we heard about ideas to radically change the system so that children who rely on subsidized meals — and those who buy their lunches — will be healthier and more focused in class.

The recommendations included cooking classes for food service workers; new recipes inspired by global culinary traditions; organic produce from local farmers; kitchen and equipment upgrades that would allow 60 percent of all food to be made from scratch and the rest to be minimally processed; a new model for delivering semi-prepared food to schools without kitchens, and spaces that could be leased in the evenings to local vendors or others in the community.

And, of course, no central kitchen would be complete without an organic farm. The current proposal calls for a 1.5-acre vegetable garden to be built right outside.

The estimated, up-front costs listed on a feasibility study by the Center for Ecoliteracy (you’ll find links to the presentation and executive summary here) total at least $26 million, a sum that OUSD would be hard-pressed to raise without another local bond measure or a heavy duty grant.

The better-quality food would also cost about $1 million extra a year, a 6.6 percent increase from the 2009-10 budget, according to the study. Jennifer LeBarre, director of OUSD’s nutrition services department, says she believes the department could break even by leasing out space and serving more meals to students (and possibly to charter schools), increasing the department’s federal reimbursement funding.

FUNDING NOTE: Most school lunch programs operate without the support of a school district’s general fund. They must survive on food sales, combined with federal reimbursement funding from the National School Lunch Program and grants.

FOOD STATS: More than 70 percent of OUSD schoolchildren qualify for a federally subsidized meal, according to the feasibility study. OUSD serves about 6.6 million meals a year, including breakfast and snacks. If you’re curious about what’s on the menu, here’s what cooking in February for elementary school kids. There’s also a page with links to all of the menus.

QUESTIONS FOR YOU: What is your school’s food like? Do you support this effort? What suggestions would you make for the plan itself, its funding or its implementation? Lastly, tell us about the most popular meal (or snack) at your school this year!

A story about this issue is scheduled to appear in the Tribune later this week. Stay tuned.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Lisa Shafer

    Is there any way for OUSD or the City of Oakland to stop the selling of junk by people in food trucks to students through the gates of our school during school hours? Or to get the local corner store to not sell hot chips, soda and other junk food DURING SCHOOL HOURS to students?

    District food services can only do so much when competing with these vendors. It takes a village.

    Nevertheless, I do applaud the efforts by parents and food service officials to take more control of the food that is in their sphere of influence!

    On another note, my freshmen in one class are organizing their own “salad party” for Friday. This idea came to them after reading “Chew on This” in journalism class, analyzing several articles on fast food in their English class and working with our health educator on food journals that counted in three of their classes. One student asked the health educator during a press conference, “Why is it that healthy food costs so much more than junk food? I’d much rather eat strawberries than hot chips.”

  • Katy Murphy

    OUSD board member Noel Gallo raised this issue during last week’s discussion. He instructed Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services, to fix the problem of vendors selling food to kids through the school gate. Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge said that was a city or school district responsibility, not something food services should — or could — take on. No specific solutions were discussed.

  • J.R.

    You would think that people who say that they care about kids would have had this issue cleared up decades ago. the types of food that children eat are critical to health, concentration, and vitality. Study after study has proven that what you eat is far more important than just infrequent and un-sustained exercise.





  • Sue

    This won’t change anything for our family. Younger son, a freshman at Skyline, prefers to bring a lunch which he makes himself each morning.

    We started having the kids make their lunches instead of buying the school lunches when older son, now a college sophomore, was in maybe 2nd or 3rd grade – better, healthier food from home.

  • oakteach

    We welcome the food trucks. It’s often healthier than the gross stuff they serve in the cafeteria. Nachos, chow mein, hot dogs…not any better.

  • Katy Murphy

    Ooh, yet another example of market-based reform in public education…

    What kind of food do the street vendors usually sell? Are students allowed to buy food from them during lunch time? Do teachers line up as well?

  • Catherine


    Look at the innovative things around school lunches that are happening at Thornhill. Smart principal.

  • OUSD Parent

    @ Catherine. Just curious. What is Thornhill doing for school lunches?

  • Katy Murphy

    I was going to ask the same question.

  • Catherine

    Thornhill is working with five restaurants with different food on different days – Mexican, Asian, Italian and two others. The students pay the same as a standard school lunch – maybe a little more, however the difference covers the cost of the free and reduced priced lunches.

    Now, I can almost hear the groaning from the audience on this list – of course, they’re in the hills, they don’t have so many poor kids, so it works. Yes, that would be correct. However, this principal found a way around the horrid food that was being offered to both those students who could and could not afford to pay. It took many, many after-hours hours to make it all work. The plan had some rough patches that had to be smoothed out. But it was done and the students all eat good, nutritious food that is in the taste and seasoning range for the school population.

    Now, the cost is based on a small school lunch program. In one of the larger elementary schools, with double or nearly double the students of Thornhill, I bet the cost could be brought down. But it takes time and effort, most of it is spent “off the clock.”

    Once again, Thornhill has found a way to meet the needs of the vast majority of students affordably as they do in their grant-based music program that the district does not have to outlay in money or time. Go Thornhill!

  • OUSD Parent

    That does sound like a great program. Thanks for sharing the details.

  • another interested parent

    How did Thornhill accomplish this given the OUSD regulations that disallow the sale of any food sold on site in competition with OUSD’s food service? Did you get a waiver?

  • Catherine

    I am not sure. I do know that several other schools are looking at the same thing. It also may also have something to do with student allergies and OUSD not being able to meet the needs of the students.

    Several schools had real problems with the salad bar. First they required school volunteers, then extra money, perhaps that was one of the issues as well.

    How do the schools with vending machines get away with the competition issue?

  • Allison Rodman

    It is true the food could be better and it will, once the feasibility study is approved and funding secured. When will that be? Well perhaps not for years. Will that help my 9 year old eat better every day, every meal at school in the next 8 years of OUSD schooling, probably not. But! In the interim we can come together as a community to bolster what is in place. What if, we funded a program to put a basket on every teacher’s desk every week full of fresh fruit & energy bars. What if we made sure every school participated in the Universal Breakfast program (the more participation, the more money for Nutrition Services to do their work, not to mention full tummies so the thinking can happen) What if an army of trained chefs came in once a week and helped cook a scratch meal. I know our community has the talent to solve this issue both short term and long term. Meanwhile support the amazing efforts that have brought us to today with salad bars, school farmers markets, way more fruits and vegetables on the plate, whole wheat flour, meatless Mondays, the yanking out of deep fat fryers and soda machines– and the list goes on. Jennifer LeBarre, Nutrition Services Director , is a national leader and her vision that includes new facilities,an OUSD farm, training her workers to be “chefs” not box openers will change (perhaps save) children’s lives. ALL our Oakland kids should have food security during their hours at school (at least). And until we create a sustainable system for that to happen, every school day, for breakfast, lunch and snack, we have not done our job as the adults in the room.
    I challenge the Oakland community full of trendy restaurants, innovative food manufacturers, food bloggers, food truck artists, chefs, whole food stores, food thinkers who reside in this bountiful region to do what you do best– roll up your sleeves and join the work party to insure food security and healthy fare for these vulnerable people, our children. Meanwhile,the parent groups who circumnavigate the system or who are pointing fingers and not helping are antithetical to an equitable solution. My kid is an Oakland kid, period. We as a family feel affinity with all kids , all families and all schools in Oakland. Parents organizing outside the system to feed just their kids and not working within OUSD to better the whole system are sending a cynical message to their kids and we need you! Lets work to give All our Oakland kids our help now!

  • another interested parent

    But if it is allergy-related, then only the kids with the allergies would get access to the non-OUSD food and that doesn’t sound like what is happening at your school.

    There is a very complicated set of OUSD rules with regard to what can be served at a school site. Not only can the food not compete with OUSD but it also has to comform to OUSD, state, and federal laws with regard to healthy food served in schools. Certain items cannot be served at all. OUSD’s regs alone are pages long on this. I am really curious how Thornhill handled these regsulations and how it has managed to get around them. I know one school that tried to bring in restaurant food last year and got dinged for it and those regulations were cited for why it couldn’t happen. If Thornhill was able to get some kind of waiver, then it would be great to know how that was done so other schools could follow.

  • OUSD Parent

    Why is OUSD so strict when it comes to individual school sites creating positive change for its student body? That doesn’t make sense to me. Could Thornhill be running a pilot program that, if successful, could be rolled out to all school sites?

  • J.R.

    “FUNDING NOTE: Most school lunch programs operate without the support of a school district’s general fund. They must survive on food sales, combined with federal reimbursement funding from the National School Lunch Program and grants.

    FOOD STATS: More than 70 percent of OUSD schoolchildren qualify for a federally subsidized meal, according to the feasibility study. OUSD serves about 6.6 million meals a year, including breakfast and snacks”.

    I object to the funding inequities here, those just missing the cutoff are at a severe financial disadvantage:

    Free reduced lunch guidelines

    Household Members
    Yearly Monthly
    1. $20,147 $1,679

    2. $27,214 $2,268

    3. $34,281 $2,857

    4. $41,348 $3,446

    5. $48,415 $4,035

    6. $55,482 $4,624

    7. $62,549 $5,213

    8. $69,616 $5,802

    As you can see from the chart above, this is not about poverty(other than the first two or three slots), or even close to it(and this applies to using free reduced lunch numbers as an excuse for academic failure as well).
    This type of funding structure is destructive and unsustainable just like the state budget, the few who actually pay subsidize and support those that do not just like their parents, and probably their parents before them.

  • Mel Stenger

    As the new principal of Thornhill Elementary I would like to correct the record regarding our lunch program. I don’t know where the commenter above got the information, but Thornhill does not have any program using local restaurants to supply lunches to our students. We participate in the OUSD lunch program provided by our food services.

  • Katy Murphy

    I just got off the phone with Mel Stenger, the Thornhill principal. It’s his first year at the elementary school, and he said he was bewildered by the statements posted about his school’s lunch program (local restaurants providing some of the food). He said his kids get the same school lunches as those in other OUSD schools.

    He said: “We have nothing going on like that this year. It’s totally erroneous.”

  • Susan Audap

    “This year” is the important part of Mr. Stenger’s comment. Allison and her group — the Oakland School Food Alliance — have done so much to bring good, nutritious food to all the children of Oakland, and they and Jennifer LaBarre are to be congratulated for their accomplishments AND the inclusive, democratic way they’ve worked.
    A couple of years ago, there was at least one Thornhill parent who informed the alliance that he was initiating the program as described above. Whether it actually got off the ground, I don’t know. But it sounds like, whatever happened in the past, it’s not happening now.