How three well-traveled ingredients end up as lunch in Oakland’s public school cafeterias
on December 8, 2009
The lunchroom at Hoover Elementary School has a long metal counter built into the wall between the lunchroom and the kitchen. There’s an industrial-looking sliding metal door that can be opened for serving food directly from the kitchen, but this serving arrangement is no longer used. There’s another, smaller opening a few yards further down the wall that’s no longer used either. “There used to be a dishwasher,” food services assistant Porshia Garvin said, almost disbelieving, when asked. A dishwasher — as in, there used to be real dishes in this cafeteria.
Just as there are no longer any dishes here, there isn’t any real cooking, either. In terms of food preparation devices, the kitchen now boasts only a refrigerator and an “oven” that is not equipped to do anything old-fashioned, like bake; it only reheats trays of already-cooked meals. Garvin is now the sole “lunch lady” at Hoover but her job has little to do with creating lunches. Instead, she warms up food that is delivered each day from a central preparation kitchen in West Oakland. The room that used to house the dishwasher is a half-filled storeroom cluttered with school lunch preparation detritus: an unopened box of hairnets sits next to a large box of single-serving bowls of Froot Loops.
Despite the fact that there is no cooking at Hoover, which is located right on the line between West and North Oakland, there are still 325 mouths to feed at breakfast and lunch every day. Like 40 of Oakland’s 109 public schools (not counting its 32 charter schools), Hoover has a large enough population of low-income students — nearly 77 percent of the student body — to qualify as a Provision II school. Schools with this designation can serve both breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. For some of Hoover’s students, these are the only meals they’ll eat all day.
Every lunch served in Oakland elementary schools is based on strict nutritional guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Among other things, they call for each elementary school lunch to provide a minimum of 664 calories and sufficient doses of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and protein, among other nutrients. Oakland Unified School District menu planner Amy Glodde accounts for these requirements by designing meals that offer one piece of fruit, one serving of vegetables, a half pint of milk, and a choice of two or three entrees. One entrée option is always vegetarian.
All components of each meal arrive at one of the three central kitchens that serve the entire school district before being sent on to individual schools. The fresh fruit, most of which is ordered from a supplier called Fresh Point, is simply counted out to match each school’s order and sent on. The majority of the entrées (75 percent), like the individually packaged “Whole Grain Corn Dog,” work like this too. About 25 percent of entrees, like the “Chicken Soft Tacos,” arrive at the central kitchen as separate ingredients, in this case: frozen chicken strips, seasoning, shredded cheese, and flour tortillas. Central kitchen workers combine these ingredients to make tacos and then portion them out into their own little cardboard trays. The trays are on a conveyor belt that feeds them through a food-packaging machine that wraps them in a sealed plastic wrapper. In the end, it looks like airplane food.
The food then arrives at Hoover on large metal trays. Some trays, like the ones full of ripe bananas, go on the table where the kids pick up their food. The pre-cooked entree trays go into the oven before being set out next to the bananas and milk.
“Back in my day, there was home-cooked food,” said Garvin, 41, who grew up in Oakland. “Myself, personally, I think it should go back to that. I think it’s healthier for the kids.”
Jennifer LeBarre, the head of Nutrition Services for Oakland’s public schools, agrees. “It’s not the best situation for the meals,” LeBarre said.
“When you’re serving something individually pre-packaged, what experience are you really having?” LeBarre continued. “You’re rushing in to get your food. You’re eating it. And then you’re rushing out to go play. You’re not enjoying it. I think that’s why we’re moving away from the individually pre-packaged way of life.”
Still, pre-prepared food can save money, especially on labor, and money is tight.
“If we can find a healthy bean and cheese burrito that’s whole grain, low-fat and non-fat cheeses that the students like, does it make sense for us to make 3,000 bean and cheese burritos from scratch?” LeBarre asked. “It doesn’t.”
Labor costs are also a primary reason school districts began using central kitchens a decade ago, LeBarre said. “You can have 60 kitchens getting their food from three locations as opposed to each school site having to have a fully operating kitchen staff,” she said. A staff like that, LeBarre said, is not a luxury she can afford on the $3.01 that the state and federal governments reimburse the school district for each free lunch it serves.
(The district is paid a much smaller reimbursement for lunches it provides for paying students and in the end, every lunch the district serves must be paid for with approximately $3.01.)
Every time a student at Hoover picks up a free lunch — about 310 times every school day — Porshia Garvin checks off that student’s name on her list. That list makes its way to LeBarre’s office, where the number of free lunches handed out at all of the district’s schools is tallied. These numbers are submitted to the California Department of Education, which sends back $2.85 from the federal government and $0.16 from its own coffers.
But the state’s coffers have a way of running dry. Last year, LeBarre said, the district didn’t receive any state money for May or June — a shortfall of $200,000. This year she’s expecting the same. “When I did our budget for this year, I didn’t even count for May and June reimbursement,” Lebarre said.
While $3.01 may seem like enough for a child’s lunch ingredients, much more than lunch must be paid for with that amount. “The food, the supplies, the labor, the benefits and the indirect costs like our utilities,” all must be included, LaBarre said. “Where can you go anywhere and get a meal for $3.01 that’s paying for all these things?”
The nation’s school lunch program began, with the best of intentions, as a response to the growing malnutrition threat among the nation’s children as 1930s unemployment left many families unable to provide for their kids. In 1935, Public Law 320 had just been passed, enabling the Department of Agriculture to buy surplus food from farmers unable to find a market for their goods. A provision was added to the bill that called for these commodities to be funneled to needy school districts. The number of participating schools grew rapidly.
In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the national School Lunch Act into law. “It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security,” the bill reads, “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.”
The practice of selling, or sometimes just giving, surplus farm commodities to school districts for school lunches continues today. But the farm landscape has changed significantly since 1935. Large industrial farms, have largely replaced the small ones that were struggling to find a market during the great Depression. This leads some, like Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books about the industrialization of food, to argue that “in a sense, the school lunch program is a bigger help to agri-business than it is to students.”
Much of the surplus the government has to reapportion these days is beef, cheese, and now pork, Pollan said. This fact has prompted criticism that school lunches are too packed with saturated fat and too high in calories. This can contribute to childhood obesity and other health problems, the argument goes, especially among the low-income students who are the primary consumers of school lunches.
Oakland schools do not actually serve any government surplus in their school lunches, LeBarre said. This is because the city is part of a very small pilot program that allows them to receive “cash in lieu of commodity.” This district can buy lean ground turkey and submit the cost for reimbursement, for example, rather than having to accept and serve whatever surplus meat the government might have on hand.
A number of groups, like the Healthy Schools Campaign and Slow Food USA, are pushing for significant changes in the nutritional guidelines. Slow Food USA, which held an East Bay event this fall as part of its national “Time for Lunch Eat-In,” is calling for increased funding for purchasing ingredients, a ban on junk food vending machines in schools, and a broadening of programs that connect small farms with nearby school districts. These groups argue that it is not enough to merely make sure kids eat—they need to eat food that’s good for them, too.
“Once upon a time, inadequate calories was the public health problem—for the poor, for school children, for everybody in America, there just weren’t enough calories available,” said Pollan, who is not associated with either group but is a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “What we have is kind of a misfit between the public health goals of the time when the school lunch program was begun and the public health goals of today. Where then quantity of calories was the issue, today quality of calories is the issue.”
Back in Oakland, at the central kitchen that supplies the majority of Oakland’s elementary schools, workers followed the standardized recipe for “Pasta w/ Meat Sauce.” It was three days before the meal would be re-heated and served to Hoover Elementary students.
To make “Pasta w/ Meat Sauce,” workers at the central kitchen browned the raw ground turkey in a steam cooker and then combined it with freshly boiled pasta and a spice mixture in large trays. They mixed Hunt’s tomato paste with water to make a sauce and poured it over the pasta and turkey. Finally this combination was cooled, dished into individual serving-sized trays and covered in plastic. These trays were then placed in the walk-in refrigerator, where they would wait overnight before being delivered to schools like Hoover the following day. At Hoover the food is refrigerated again until it is time for Garvin to reheat and serve the food.
A few OUSD elementary schools, like Esperanza Academy and Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy which share a campus in East Oakland, have an on-site kitchen. This means that although the ingredients in the “Pasta w/ Meat Sauce” there are the same as the version prepared in the central kitchen, the meal is put together on the same day that students eat it—no conveyor belts or plastic wrap. In the more traditional manner, students line up for their food with trays and are served a portion of the pasta along with the other items in their meal, LeBarre said.
Esperanza-Korematsu is the pilot campus in a program to increase on site cooking at elementary schools in Oakland. OUSD Nutritional Services is on track to open six new on-site kitchens that will serve eight elementary schools (two of the campuses host two schools) by February 2010, LeBarre said. The new kitchens will be at the Lincoln, Bella Vista, Manzanita, Jefferson, Franklin, and Garfield campuses.
Does this difference in serving style matter? Pollan thinks it does. “There is something about cooking food and giving it to people that sends a very different signal than reheating food and giving it to people,” he said. “It sounds sentimental to say, but food prepared with love and care—when the person cooking it meets the person eating it—it changes the whole emotional transaction in profound ways and you’re never going to get that with centralized, pre-prepared food.”
Anthony McKenzie, who came to teaching in 1995 by way of stock option trading, eats lunch with his third grade students every day because he thinks it’s important to spend non-curricular time with them. “They always have something to tell you,” he said, explaining how he watches kids start at the end of the table and then gravitate toward him by the end of lunch in order to share something unrelated to school. (He’s particularly encouraging of knock-knock jokes.)
Instead of bringing his own lunch, McKenzie dutifully shells out the $4.75 it costs an adult to buy one of the $3.01 lunches on offer in the school cafeteria. On Thursday, November 12, he had selected the “Pasta w/ Meat Sauce.”
What did he think of it? “It’s not a very good lunch for $4.75,” he said. “This one may be balanced nutritionally, but it’s been cooked too long.” (By the time he ate it, it had, in fact, been cooked twice.)
Nikkia, 7, who was seated at the end of a long lunch table across from a boy munching on a banana, had her own take on the “Pasta w/ Meat Sauce” she’d chosen over the “Whole Wheat Grilled Cheese” packaged in a SpongeBob SquarePants wrapper. She was carefully eating every bite of her meal. She knew it was healthy because “it has tomatoes in it, and a tomato is a vegetable. I mean, a fruit!” she said brightly.
How did it taste?
And was it good?
She cocked her head, spork in hand, and eyed her nearly empty tray.
“A little,” she said.
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