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Oakland students, administrators try organic school lunches

on October 15, 2010

Thirty minutes before lunchtime at East Oakland’s Fremont High School cafeteria, the smell of fresh-baked corn bread filled the air, and bubbling circles of pizza were beginning to emerge from the ovens. Cafeteria Manager Lawana Wyatt and her staff had already spent several hours preparing the day meal options, which included vegetarian chili, organic produce; whole wheat bread from local bakeries; and hormone, preservative, and antibiotic-free grass-fed beef hot dogs.

“I put love into this food,” said Wyatt, who has worked with food services in Oakland for the past 13 years, as she instructed a member of her staff on how much food to add to each plate when the students arrived. Although Wyatt is enthusiastic about school lunch on any given day, she knew that Thursday’s meal was really something special. “It’s not every day that we can get organic food,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea. I really hope the kids come.”

Elementary, middle and high schools across the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) deviated from their usual lunch ingredients yesterday as they prepared the “ideal meal,” a one-time special lunch menu that featured organic, local, and environmentally-friendly food items. Three other school districts—in San Diego, Portland, and Denver—also served grass-fed beef on the same day, which fell during National School Lunch Week, in an attempt to show farmers and the USDA that there is a viable market for grass-fed beef in schools.

Menu items

Vegetarian chilli, organic cornbread, free-range chicken, and grass-fed hot dogs were among the items featured as a part of OUSD’s “ideal meal,” a one-time organic, local, and sustainable menu served on Thursday as a part of National School Lunch Week. Photo by Roberto Daza.

“The whole idea behind the ideal meal was to show what we could do if we could have a funding increase,” said Donnie Barclift, an OUSD Nutrition Services field supervisor who oversees food distribution at 20 public schools. “This is what our kids are asking for, this is what our parents are asking for, and this is what administrators are asking for.”

On any given day, OUSD serves about 21,000 lunches per day, according to Nutrition Services director Jennifer LeBarrre. The ideal meal did not cost students any more than a regular school lunch—$2.25 at elementary schools, and $3.00 at middle and high schools. But the food itself cost Nutrition Services about twice as much. “Typically just for the food, we have $1.20 to spend per student,” LeBarre said. “The rest of the money goes toward supplies and labor. This ‘ideal meal’ costs between $2.00 and $2.40, so we have to eat the rest of that cost from our budget. That’s why it has to be a one-time thing.  But we feel that it’s the right thing to do.”

Chances that OUSD will receive a funding increase to provide healthier lunches like the ideal meal seem slim. “When I was a director, I always had fresh fruit and vegetable choices and I was able to do it cost effectively, so I didn’t need to ask for more money,” said Brenda Padilla, assistant director of the nutrition services division at the state’s Department of Education. “It’s up to the district if they want to stay within the amount that is allocated.”

Oakland is the only school district in California not participating in “entitlement,” a program in which food is purchased and distributed by the USDA, says Padilla. Instead, Oakland is granted a cash advance from the USDA to buy the district’s own foods. “School districts are pretty much pleased with getting the entitlement,” said Padilla. “It can reduce food costs for districts by as much as 10, 15, 20 percent.”

Padilla says Oakland opted out of entitlement roughly 25 years ago, along with a number of other districts in the state. “Decades ago, you didn’t have choices,” Padilla said of the food options available to school districts. “A group of folks proposed, ‘just give me cash and let me find my own services.’ Oakland was a trial district, and the model stuck.” When the USDA reformed their services, Oakland did not revert back to the entitlement model.

At Fremont, high school students quickly crowded the grass-fed hot dogs, which were gone by halfway through the lunch period. “They taste different, but in a good way,” said Blanca Castillo, 16, as she as she finished her hot dog. Both she and her sister Rubi, 17, eat in the cafeteria every day.  “I wish they could do organic every day,” Rubi Castillo said.  “It’s good, and it’s healthier.”

At Sankofa Academy, an elementary school in North Oakland, the Southwest chicken bowl did not include free-range, hormone-free chicken because of a shortage on the distributor’s end. “The distributor had a hard time meeting the demand,” said Barclift, whose service area includes Sankofa. “Because we’re such a large district, we couldn’t get it in time for most of the satellite schools to get the free-range chicken.”

Lunch line

High School students line up for OUSD’s “ideal meal” on Thursday at Fremont High School Cafeteria. The menu included organic, local, and sustainable ingredients in a one-time district wide effort that marked the pinnacle of National School Lunch Week. Photo by Roberto Daza.

Barclift spent Thursday afternoon visiting lunch periods at many of the district’s schools to see how students received the ideal meal. “The kids really liked it,”  he said of the vegetarian chili. “We’re putting items on the menu that kids will eat and kids will enjoy.”

By Barclift’s estimation, the lunch was a success. “I didn’t see a lot of waste from this menu, which was very exciting,” Barclift said. “One kid was scraping the bowl.”

When asked how the meal tasted, a group of students at Sankofa simply replied, “awesome.” Students at Sankofa took their lunch period on the school’s blacktop behind the building Thursday. While some students finished off their ideal meal, those who head eaten quickly kicked balls around to each other and played tag.   “We got to eat cornbread and chili,” said Evelyn, 10, a fifth grade student at Sankofa. “We usually have junk food.”

But service of the ideal meal did not go off without a hitch. Because of a delivery mix-up, students at Peralta Elementary School ate Friday’s lunch of bagged nachos and grilled cheese sandwiches—not, perhaps, a nutritionist’s version of the ideal meal. “This morning, the driver grabbed the wrong lunch,” said Barclift. “I’m hoping we can do it tomorrow.”

Other glitches around the district included a shortage of ideal meal chicken, as was the case at Sankofa; inconsistencies in the menu at each school; and an absence of the promised biodegradable sporks. “Some of the middle schools and high schools got them in bulk,” said Barclift of the sporks. “But, they weren’t pre-wrapped with napkins inside and kids would have had to pick them up with their hands.”

Although LeBarre said she hoped that more students would buy the ideal meal, promotion of the special lunch was not emphasized across the district. “We’ve done some marketing,” said LeBarre, adding that promotion was left mostly to each school site.

At Sankofa, most of the students asked had no idea the meal was organic. Similarly, at Fremont, the majority of students were not told about Thursday’s ideal meal until a loudpeaker announcement just hours before lunch was served, although one student said she heard the news from a teacher earlier in the week.

A few minutes after Fremont’s lunch period ended on Thursday, Wyatt retired from the empty cafeteria to her office to check the numbers for how many students participated in the day’s lunch. The final count—385 students, a little under 40% of the total enrollment for the school, which does not allow students to venture off-campus for lunch.  Wyatt said that many students choose to bring lunch, or to buy food from mobile trucks, which exchange money for tacos and soda through the fences near school. “We usually get about 450 kids, so this is a little low,” she said, going on to speculate that the lack of popular items like fries and nachos might have contributed to students choosing options other than school lunch. “You got to give the kids what they want. Maybe they didn’t like what we had to offer.”

Lead image: High school students at the Fremont Federation of Schools cafeteria on Thursday eat OUSD’s “ideal meal,” consisting of local, organic, and sustainable ingredients. Photo by Roberto Daza.

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  1. Clay Boggess on October 15, 2010 at 9:43 am

    In spite of the current financial crisis, our students’ health should be a high priority. Therefore this should be high on the list for strong consideration. Although the food must taste good so that students will be motivated to eat it. The other issue is making sure that there is enough variety of this type of food.

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