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OUSD celebrates “California Thursdays” with locally-sourced lunches

on November 6, 2014

For students at West Oakland Middle School, October 23 was more or less a typical Thursday in the school cafeteria. Assistant principal Kino Carson yelled to be heard over the squeaking of hundreds of sneakers on the parquet floors, instructing the 8th graders to be on their best behavior. And, in typical Thursday fashion, the plat du jour was a touch on the experimental side for some palates.

While the particular recipes on offer were new to the students, the unusual menu was nothing to be surprised about. Oakland Unified School District has been doing “California Thursdays”—when schools across the district serve lunches sourced entirely from in-state producers—for more than a year. But this was a special occasion, including recipe tasting and a guest appearance by Superintendent Antwan Wilson. The aim of the celebration was to welcome 14 more districts from across the state, comprising nearly a million students, in following Oakland’s lead with their own California Thursdays programs.

At the entrance to the cafeteria, students at West Oakland Middle School lined up to meet staff from the district and the Center for Ecoliteracy, who handed out samples of cubed and roasted local butternut squash in paper cups. Carson reminded the kids to form a proper line and avoid crowding around the main doors. “It’s a fire hazard,” he said.

Inside, organizers walked around with clipboards, asking students for feedback on the new recipes. Some were ambivalent; others were pleased.

“It’s a little different, but I can handle it,” said one 8th grader as she poked her fork at an antibiotic-free, panko-and-cornmeal encrusted chicken leg. “This one’s kind of weird,” she said, pointing to a pile of squash. “I thought it was a potato.”

One bold reviewer went so far in his enthusiasm as to invoke a biblical place whose naming might land him in detention, should the quote come to light.

The Thursday theme, which came about through a partnership between the district and the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, doesn’t stand alone as an initiative. Rather, it is part of a larger effort to bring fresh local food into schools. In the words of Adam Kesselman, program director for California Thursdays, it’s a “bite-sized implementation strategy.” Whereas the broader goal of transforming the lunch menu throughout a school district can be daunting, the California Thursdays program works in small steps. “It’s easy to understand, it’s finite, and it’s achievable,” Kesselman said. It’s a single meal, on a single day.

In Oakland and elsewhere in California, school lunch is a large-scale operation with challenges all along the supply chain. Districts rely heavily on prepared foods, as many schools lack the resources—both in equipment and in staff training—to cook raw foods in their own kitchens.

In Oakland, the focus on cooking a full meal with California ingredients means organizers have to work hard to find affordable sources of protein. And that means developing new recipes and training the staff to do more cooking in-house. “We haven’t cooked poultry from a raw state for decades,” said Alex Emmott, Oakland’s farm-to-school supervisor. “We really just found that we couldn’t afford a local, sustainable product that was pre-cooked.”

In the world of school lunches, dishing up healthy local food comes down to counting pennies. “You have to look for savings where you can find them,” Emmott said. Middle-school kids in Oakland whose families don’t qualify for federal subsidies pay $3.25 per meal. For federally subsidized lunches, the schools get $3.00. They get another 6 cents per lunch if the meal meets new federal nutrition standards called for in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Emmott says she can put locally sourced chicken drumsticks, which cost about 40 cents a piece, on the menu only if she can compensate by cutting costs elsewhere.

After the kids filed out, kitchen manager Tamara Purifoy was still pulling large trays loaded with breaded chicken out of the oven to feed the staff and guests who had showed up for the day’s event. She put a tray down on the table, next to an 11-pound box of “e.z. jammers”—soybutter and grape jelly sandwiches—another regular feature on the school lunch menu, made by a company headquartered in Michigan that also offers “pizza sticks” and “beef pasties” among its line of prepared foods. She checked a thermometer in one of the drumsticks to make sure it had reached a safe internal temperature. She hadn’t logged the official numbers yet, but by her reckoning the school had served roughly 350 students. About two-thirds chose the chicken, and only two asked for ketchup—which spoke well for the dish’s approval rating. Purifoy wasn’t surprised. Kids love chicken. As to whether the California lunches were harder to prepare, she kept her cool. “As long as we have the ingredients, and the energy, we’re good.”

While they ate their lunch, organizers from the district, the Center for Ecoliteracy, and the nonprofit Food Corps talked shop. Some Ecoliteracy staff had fanned out across the state for the launch day. They would be visiting school districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, Turlock and Monterey—each of which had taken its own steps in farm-to-school leadership. Monterey was doing “boat-to-school” with local fish, and had found a supplier for grass-fed beef. So far, the only local “beef” Oakland has been able to offer is vegetarian mock meat. “I want to know where they’re getting it!” Emmott said.

While organizers say the California Thursdays program is still in the pilot phase, they are hopeful the collaboration with other districts will create more opportunities for working together. In Oakland, the school district is working on building a new central kitchen that will make it possible to prepare raw foods on a much larger scale. In other areas around the state, Kesselman said, some districts are considering taking a similar approach with regional kitchens. “There’s a burgeoning recognition of the power that school districts, particularly when they aggregate, could wield,” said Chris Smith, program and resource development director at the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Working on a larger scale means districts will have an easier time acquiring food. For the time being, Oakland gets its chicken through distributors because it is a relatively small buyer. It doesn’t make sense for Pitman Farms, the producer, to sell to them directly. Dan Sinkay, a salesman for Pitman Farms, said he sees a lot of promise that more schools will be looking to buy sustainable meats in the future. “There’s a lot of room for growth,” Sinkay said.

In the Oakland school district, and at the Center for Ecoliteracy, the efforts to bring fresh and local food into schools focus heavily on education. Organizers want to show kids where their food comes from and help them develop a taste for healthy ingredients. After all, many students rely on school lunches for their nutrition. Across California, about 60% of school-age kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Here at West Oakland Middle, that number is nearly 90%. That’s a big responsibility for lunch organizers. “For a lot of kids in Oakland, it’s their only source of fresh food,” Emmott said of the school lunch program. “For some, it’s their only source of food.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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