A woman places black Styrofoam trays onto the assembly line, which steadily chugs along, like a train with passengers jumping aboard. Space is tight in the central kitchen at Prescott Elementary, and little traffic jams occur, as workers push around 20-level carts carrying trays of food products. After taking the food off the carts, the workers drop a dollop of rice onto each tray, and then a chicken leg, at which point the “train” passes through a shrink-wrapping tunnel. The Styrofoam-rice-chicken bundles emerge as tidy, plastic-wrapped packages, ready to be stacked and delivered to another school site. This package may be sufficiently nutritious, but, to many Oakland students and parents, is not how a school lunch should look or be delivered.
The school district’s recently-approved Central Kitchen, Instructional Farm and Education Center Project is an effort to improve the quality of school meals in Oakland by creating a modern facility equipped to prepare thousands of nutritious meals every day. It will be located at the Marcus Foster school site in West Oakland, which formerly housed the Marcus Foster Middle School and later offices for the Programs for Exceptional Children. In addition to being better-equipped to serve fresher and healthier foods for students, the new site will offer educational programs and even a farm for students to help grow the food that may one day end up on their plates.
The center is projected to open in May, 2017, and is funded by Measure J, a proposition passed by Oakland voters in 2012 with an 84 percent “yes” vote. Measure J gave the school district authorization to issue bonds of up to $475 million to improve school quality and facilities. Of this amount, $44 million was designated for improvements to food facilities.
“We will be dramatically improving the meals that we’re serving to our students by eliminating 80 percent of the pre-packaged food,” said Jennifer LeBarre, the executive director of food services for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). “It will also become an education destination for students from across the district, from everything from field trips to linked learning opportunities.”
Every day, the district provides approximately 8,500 breakfasts, 21,000 lunches, 8,400 snacks and 500 suppers for students. In the 2014 to 2015 school year, 73.4 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches: to qualify for reduced-price lunch, a family of four must have an annual income of $44,863 or less, and to qualify for free lunch, a family of four must make $31,525 per year, or less. For many students, then, school meals constitute an important source of sustenance. “In high-poverty neighborhoods, we’re really clear that our system is the safety net for many children,” said school board director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3), whose district will house the center. “We already know the importance of them feeling nourished and being nourished in order for them to learn.”
Currently, Prescott Elementary in West Oakland is charged with providing school meals for both the entire district and the elementary school itself, a cooking and delivery process that begins at 5 o’clock every morning. Trucks pull up at the back entrance to the kitchen, in a continuous cycle of driving to and from school sites, delivering meals. Right now, most of the meals come in plastic wrapping, because that is the easiest way to distribute food to all the schools.
According to LeBarre, the main problems with the current meals are that packaging and the lack of freshness. “It’s safe, it’s healthy, all those different types of things,” she said. But, “for example, the food that is served today at schools was delivered to schools on Monday but prepared on Friday.”
And students don’t trust food that comes wrapped in plastic. “The fact is, the majority of our students receive food in individual, pre-packed portions, said LeBarre, “and it creates a negative perception of the food.” Even if a lunch is in fact cooked from scratch at Prescott, she said, students are still turned off by the individual packaging. “A lot of people don’t trust the food, because they don’t know where it comes from, they can’t see it,” said LeBarre. “Even students in highly needy schools tend to not to eat the food. And then other schools’ parents just don’t want their children to eat the food.”
And indeed, some students say they would rather skip lunch. “School lunches now are horrendous,” said Briana Keyes, a senior at Oakland Technical High School. “They’re so bad. Coming from somebody who’s on a free lunch program, sometimes I’ll just pick at it, look around. I can’t tell what it is. I ask the lunch lady—she doesn’t even know what it is.”
María Lourdes Castellanos, the Parent Teacher Association president at Laurel Elementary School, helps out in her daughter’s class and accompanies them to lunch. “I see how they eat, I see what they like and what they don’t like, and I see a lot of food get wasted because they don’t like it and it’s being tossed,” said Castellanos. “And I see that they really do like the fruits that they are served. Unfortunately, some of them don’t eat it all, so I think if it was chopped up for them, a lot of it wouldn’t go to waste.”
This point was brought up by several students who came to speak at the board meeting on November 4, when the board voted the new kitchen in. “If this project were passed, we would know where our food would come from,” said Erica Jackson, a senior at Oakland Technical High School and a member of the Health Academy at that site.
“I have younger cousins that are in OUSD, and I know the food is pretty terrible. I don’t even eat school lunch because it’s just suspect,” said Jackson afterward, explaining why she chose to speak at the board meeting. “And it’ll be a good thing to know where our food is grown and where it comes from, especially if it’s Oakland-grown, it gives students a sense of pride.”
Troy Flint, spokesperson for the OUSD, cited several initiatives that have been added to school meal programs in recent years, like Harvest of the Week and Meatless Mondays. Harvest of the Week features one new produce item every week, while Meatless Mondays showcase greens and other vegetables, though the district doesn’t necessarily advocate for “a full-on vegetarian diet,” said Flint. And the district has also made changes to the menu in conjunction with Michelle Obama’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, which enforced stricter regulations on the nutritional content of school meals and snacks.
But Flint added that there are still improvements to be made. “There have been a number of innovative programs,” said Flint, “but fundamentally, when you don’t have the space to prepare fresh food, you’re only going to be able to accomplish so much.”
The concept behind the Central Kitchen originated in 2011, when the OUSD commissioned a report by the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy to analyze the capabilities of the district’s cooking facilities. The report found several problems. In 2011, only 25 of the 89 school campuses had cooking kitchens “where meals are prepared on-site,” according to the report. The kitchen at Prescott Elementary had been “designed to serve 8,000 meals a day,” the study’s authors wrote but really was serving 20,000 per day. Much of the cooking equipment was old and did not work. And, according to the report, “the districtʼs primary vendor, Sysco, delivers directly to many of the schools—a costly process that could be eliminated if all deliveries went to a Central Commissary and were then redistributed by refrigerated trucks that are already traveling to schools across the District on a daily basis.” The nonprofit recommended building a 44,000-square-foot “Central Commissary” alongside a 1.5-acre garden.
“Most kitchens were not cooking fresh food,” said Hinton-Hodge, recalling her response to the 2011 report. “I can remember one of the first contracts I signed and approved for a really large, national corporation that was shipping food and it was millions of dollars—and the experience of thinking that I was approving and legitimizing in a way probably not the healthiest of food for our students to eat. And so this report, and community engagement around that, all said that we should look at how we can better serve our students school meals.”
A major difference between the old and new kitchens will be their size: the new kitchen will not coexist with an operational school like at Prescott Elementary, and will have more space. This larger space means that the district will be able to eliminate 80 percent of the packaging on foods, because the food service department will be able to prepare the ingredients at the central kitchen and send them out to school sites that same day. “For example, on spaghetti day, instead of us preparing it here [at Prescott], we’re going to send the ingredients out to the school sites and they will be able to cook the pasta freshly, prepare it, and then serve it to the students,” said LeBarre.
A larger facility would also expand the kinds of foods the district could serve. “Right now there’s really great prices on winter squash, but in order for us to serve it, we have to send it somewhere to be prepared, prepped, cut, those types of things,” said LeBarre. “With the center, we’re going to have a produce processing room, so we can purchase large amounts of produce, and then prepare it ourselves and distribute it to our schools.”
There will also be gardens at the site, with the goal of not just growing produce that can be served in school lunches, but also connecting students to the food they eat, and helping them to understand its source. “Here, young people will actually see where fruit is grown, because we’ll have an orchard of fruit trees. We’ll be able to grow broccoli, we’ll be able to grow herbs and different kinds of things that they will experience,” said Hinton-Hodge. Students will learn how “to grow, and to harvest, and to weed, and all those wonderful things like that—to really connect themselves to the earth and to what food really is.”
The decision to locate the new kitchen at the Marcus Foster school site was a long and laborious process. The space constraints at Prescott Elementary made Hinton-Hodge and other administrators realize the importance finding a spot unattached to any other schools. “We wanted to really make sure that we were not imposing upon students’ learning in that environment,” said Hinton-Hodge.
Initially, in accordance with the Center for Ecoliteracy’s study, the district envisioned a 44,000 square-foot plot, but scaled it down to 33,000 square feet. Project planners also considered the center’s proximity to the highway, for easy truck delivery access and to avoid disrupting neighborhoods. The Marcus Foster school site fit the bill, since it is a large, vacant space close to the 580 and 880 highways.
But not all of the neighbors for the kitchen’s new West Oakland location were in favor of the project. At the November 4 school board meeting, some mentioned concerns that architects and developers would change the character of the neighborhood, while others spoke out against the demolition of the Marcus Foster school building. Others were still upset that neighbors had not been consulted enough in the initial decision-making behind the project.
The district has since apologized for not reaching out to more community members beforehand. Hinton-Hodge said that she understands the upset, especially as someone from West Oakland who has worked there for many years. “I know the sense of historical pain and what can get triggered, when a governmental entity kind of shows up and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to develop it. And it will be really good for you,’” she said.
Renia Webb, an OUSD parent who is a frequent volunteer in Oakland schools, says she supports the new kitchen. “I think it really will change the mindset of all of our kids, because to them food is at the grocery store, food is in a bag of chips,” she said. “The way that they feel about food I think will start to adjust, and change for the better.” (Webb’s family definitely feels that school lunches could be better: She says she’s been making her kids’ lunches ever since her oldest daughter started kindergarten—and that daughter just graduated from Skyline.)
Webb has also tried to mitigate the anger of some of her neighbors. “They put a new policy in place so that would never happen again, as far as the community being engaged on process and programs from day one,” said Webb. “So out of this has come something so beautiful, and that’s just what I’ve been kind of trying to remind my neighbors about.”
To respond to neighbors’ concerns around the building’s aesthetics, OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson announced at the December 2 board meeting that the Central Kitchen had been redesigned based on a recent survey of community members on what they would ideally like to see in the building.
When the new kitchen opens in 2017, all district schools will be supported in some way by the central kitchen, although only 60 percent will be served by it exclusively. For example, said LeBarre, “We would be able to prepare winter squash for the entire school district and distribute it to the entire school district.” But if it were pizza day, 60 percent of schools “would be receiving their pizza from the center, and the rest of them would be getting the ingredients from the other vendors.”
Meanwhile, parents and students are hopeful that the project will flourish.
“I just hope that it thrives really long, like it doesn’t get shut down because of budget cuts, because it’s something our kids need,” said Erica Jackson, the Oakland Tech senior who spoke up at the board meeting. “Some kids, this might be their only meal. So if you gave them a healthy meal they can sustain longer than if you gave them greasy stuff.”
“I think that we’ll see a lot less kids that are obese that are growing up in our communities, and less health issues, and less health problems,” agreed Webb. “So it’s just going to be a benefit—not just for our children, for their parents, for our health system.”