Baskets of persimmons, nopal cactus and collard greens greeted a wide-eyed second-grader. Backpack slung on shoulders, she fixated on the strawberries. She unclenched the dollar in her hand in exchange for the quart of red-seeded fruit. Her small hands cradled the basket before selecting the perfect berry to commence her after-school snack. She had barely raised it to her lips before another student nudged her to the side.
“No pushing please,” Mandisa Amber responded, as her tattooed arms worked to serve fresh fruit and vegetables yesterday to her hungry after-school customers. It was barely 3 p.m. at Hoover Elementary School in West Oakland, and the strawberries at the Tuesday farmers’ market were almost sold out.
Hoover is just one of 25 schools that are part of “Oakland Fresh,” a recent OUSD effort aimed at providing fresh, locally grown organic produce for parents to purchase when they pick their students up from school. The produce is purchased from eight local family farmers and produce distributors, and sold by parent volunteers like Amber every week.
“A lot of the kids used to say this stuff is nasty,” Amber said. “Not so much anymore.” In front of her, nearly a dozen students were scanning everything from apples to zucchinis on the table.
The East Bay Asian Youth Center started markets at Garfield and Franklin elementary schools several years ago. “The school district was a natural partner,” OUSD Nutrition Services Director Jennifer LeBarre said. Since its inception, Oakland Fresh has grown from two to 25 markets and hopes to add another 13 schools in the next year.
“We opened these markets to provide fresh, local food to our students and their families,” LeBarre said. “So many of our students live in ‘food deserts’ where there is limited to no access to fresh food.”
In West Oakland, there is only one supermarket to serve more than 25,000 people. By contrast, neighborhood Rockridge has one grocery store for every 4,333 people, according to David Troutt, author of the book The Thin Redline: How the Poor Still Pay More.
With a short supply of full-service grocery stores that serve fresh produce, many West Oakland residents depend on more than 40 convenience stores for their food shopping. These convenience stores carry mostly canned and processed food, with plenty of candy, chips, liquor, and cigarettes stocked at eye leve. Convenience stores prices are also typically set 30%-100% higher than prices in grocery stores.
“It’s important to educate families where they can find fresh and affordable food,” Amber said. “A lot of kids are coming to school hungry. Many don’t know that the persimmons at the market are the same thing on their granny’s tree.”
Over the last decade, West Oakland organizations like Mo Better Foods, City Slicker Farms, Madela Foods Coop and People’s Grocery have been creating affordable farmer’s markets, healthy food cooperatives and accessible community gardens.
Working with schools is a “brilliant opportunity,” People’s Grocery program director Jumoke Hodge said. “It’s a multiple prong strategy to provide access to healthy quality food,” she said. “Farmers’ markets are just one component. Education in knowing what to do with those vegetables once they’re brought home is another.”
Other components of Oakland Fresh are the monthly cooking demonstrations and on-site tastings using fresh ingredients from the market. Amber maintains Hoover’s community garden and leads the cooking classes.
“I was nervous that the kids wouldn’t want to try anything we made,” Amber said. She’s taught kids how to make dishes like penne pasta with spinach and macaroni and cheese with cauliflower. “But they ended up liking it,” she said. “They’ll even ask their parents to make it.”
OUSD reports that the markets are making a significant impact on school communities it serves. Last year, 99 percent of parents surveyed at these schools reported that their families have been eating more fresh fruits and vegetables since they have been shopping at the school farmers’ market, and 91% reported that their children ask them to buy produce at the market.
School farmers’ markets have even trickled into the classroom. The Student Buyer Card Program allows students to purchase or “earn” healthy snacks at the market as part of a classroom incentives program.
Teachers may also use the Oakland Fresh Market-to-Classroom Lesson Toolkit to teach lessons in math, science or language arts by using produce from their school market.
Amber incorporates mini lessons at the market, asking questions like “How much change should she get back?” or “How many tomatoes are left in the basket?” With fresh fruit as prizes, the students will look to the fingers to solve the math problems.
LeBarre said OUSD plans is to expand to 13 more schools next school year and is exploring the idea of a traveling market that visits schools that can’t support a weekly market.
“It comes down the kids,” Amber says. “They end up telling their parents ‘Hey, this is where I’m getting the strawberries from,’ and asking ‘Can we cook what I learned at school for dinner?’”
Amber encourages residents to volunteer at their school’s farmers market, which is also open to community residents and accepts EBT food stamps. Volunteers receive vouchers of $5 or more every time they help out. To volunteer at a school market, contact Christine Cherdboonmuang at 510-533-1092, ext 30 or at Christine@ebayc.org.