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“Farm to School” allies plan healthy food campaign

on January 29, 2010

If advocates of school meal reform have their way, the cafeteria lunch as it exists in the popular imagination—with mystery meats and individually shrink-wrapped compartments—will become a veritable cornucopia of produce, be it in the form of salad bars or school gardens or locally-sourced fruits and vegetables.  But when it comes to food systems, there are as many definitions of “local” as there are varieties of apple.  Given federal, state and local regulations, what reforms are truly feasible?

Parents, students, community activists and public health administrators gathered Thursday evening in the Oakland Unified School District’s administrative hub Hunter Hall to grapple with those seemingly simple, but ultimately complex questions. Though held in the cavernous 4th floor cafeteria, the feeling was nevertheless intimate and friendly, with clusters of tables inviting conversation among the approximately fifty attendees.

The meeting was sponsored by the Central Coast chapter of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a sustainable agriculture advocacy group which strives to connect local farmers and their community, and the nutrition services division of OUSD.  CAFF’s Ildi Carlisle-Cummins began the discussion with a presentation on what, exactly, the Farm to School movement is.  The initiative, she said, consists of two tracks: a “know your farmer” education program fostering greater understanding by students about where their food comes from and how it is produced, and a distribution program that seeks to secure a spot on school lunch menus for locally-grown produce.

There are 3,000 Farm to School projects across the nation, most of them community-driven but loosely linked by a national Farm to School network. In California, 411 schools in twenty school districts—including Hayward Unified and Berkeley Unified–have Farm to School projects that include after-school produce stands, school garden programs and sourcing produce from farmers who grow within an hour of the district.

Oakland Unified is working with School Food Focus, an organization that helps large urban school districts serve healthier food.  Through School Food Focus, the district has partnered with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers as it explores how Farm to School projects could work in the district.

At Thursday night’s meeting, Jennifer LeBarre, OUSD’s director of nutrition services, presented an overview of the district’s meal program. LeBarre spoke of the scope of the program—approximately 43,000 breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks are served daily in Oakland Unified schools—but also of its limitations, both in funding and facilities.  Of the 91 cafeterias in the district, for example, only 25 have fully operating kitchens.

Funding-wise, OUSD’s nutrition services budget is at the mercy of federal and state reimbursement for meals served. Last year, the state legislature did not allocate enough funds for meal reimbursement requests, leaving the OUSD out $200,000 in funding for May and June. With about a $7 million total annual budget for food, the district needs to be thrifty, which means well-traveled ingredients end up being prepared in central kitchens. (For more of the facts and figures of LeBarre’s presentation, check out her PowerPoint here.)

LeBarre’s overview of the cash-strapped school meals program underscored the daunting barriers to change.  But while CAFF’s Carlise-Cummins acknowledged the challenges were significant, she said they were not insurmountable. “It’s not impossible,” she said as attendees helped themselves to the buffet dinner. “You can do it.  You can creatively work within a tight budget.” For inspiration, Carlisle-Cummins cited the Farm to School program in Southern California’s Riverside school district, an urban school district with a similar enrollment to Oakland’s.

After LeBarre’s presentation, the meeting broke into small discussion groups to talk about why each person was attracted to the Farm to School movement.  LeBarre said that kind of feedback would be crucial as the initiative moves forward. “We’re bringing stakeholders together to find out what the priorities are,” LeBarre said. “What does ‘Farm to School’ mean [to them]? What does ‘local’ mean?”  After all, she said, depending on one’s understanding of ‘local,’ produce can be sourced from within a 50-mile radius or as far away as one of the other Western states—all of which impacts what types of produce are available throughout the year.

The specifics of these definitions were not hammered out during last night’s meeting, but members of CAFF will be compiling survey responses from the meeting’s attendees.  Those responses will factor into an OUSD Farm to School analysis that the alliance will release in March.  The analysis will look at what the community wants in a Farm to School program, as well as release findings in CAFF’s effort to trace OUSD’s current produce purchasing arrangements. The forthcoming report will detail where OUSD’s current provider gets its produce and identify alternative sources of produce.

Most of the attendees were well-versed in the minutiae of school lunch and local food systems, a familiarity that Christopher Waters, founder of Nomad Café in North Oakland and member of the Oakland Food Policy Council, said was problematic. “We need to do a better job of bringing this out to the community,” said Waters, whose son attends Peralta Elementary School. “This crowd travels in the same circles a lot.”

Nationwide, the issue of school lunch reform has recently garnered increased momentum, particularly because the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act—which determines funding for the national school lunch program—is set to be taken up by Congress this year.  While last night’s meeting focused mostly on Oakland-specific efforts for reform, the desire for comprehensive national action loomed large. “To be sustainable, there needs to be reforms at the federal level,” Carlisle-Cummins said. “I can’t see [funding sources like private foundations] supporting school lunch in Oakland for the next thirty years”

Carlisle-Cummins acknowledged that in this economic climate, school lunch reform is just one in a long list of priorities for the federal—as well as state and local—government. “These are hard choices, but Farm to School is at the junction of some of the serious issues that the nation is now more aware of,” she said, citing Farm to School’s impact on public health, local agricultural systems and the environment.

Ultimately, she said, it’s a rallying cry that many can get behind. “It’s about feeding kids good food,” Carlisle-Cummins said.  “It’s a happy solution to these problems.  It’s something people can feel positive about.”

Image: Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, of CAFF, leads the Farm to School discussion.


  1. […] 2, 2010 · Leave a Comment Oakland North reporter Melanie Mason in the article “Farm to school allies plan healthy food campaign” writes that 411 California schools in twenty school districts have Farm to School projects […]

  2. Jeff Wise on June 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    I think it would be a wonderful idea to have more fresh fruits and vegetables at the schools.

    We also need to educate parents and grandparents on healthy food choices for their children.

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