Construction moves ahead for OUSD central kitchen in West Oakland

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Alternier Cook didn’t want a kitchen built near her house. And she certainly didn’t want noise and traffic from construction crowding her neighborhood–on and off–for three years.

Her family has lived in West Oakland since 1950. Growing up, she went to Durant Elementary School for ballet lessons and other recreational activities—it later became the Marcus Foster Education Complex school site.

But in 2016, when she says she first heard from her city council member during a neighborhood meeting about the Oakland Unified School District’s plans to build a kitchen and farm at the site, she was concerned about how the construction would affect her neighborhood, and that this was the first she was hearing about it. “It was just outright disrespectful,” said Cook, “of the school district to think that they can get by with something like this without really notifying the community, and use taxpayer dollars.”

Two years later, with construction underway, Cook says she still has concerns about how the community will benefit from the kitchen. She says the construction tore down the old community gym, which kept a lot of young neighborhood residents involved and engaged. Cook also leads a community group that’s campaigning to bring a library back to the Hoover-Foster neighborhood, which she hopes could be built on a portion of the central kitchen site. “You talk about community involvement, that’s what the community wants,” said Cook. “We want the gym and we want the library. We want the land for the library, 0.5 acres, and we’re not backing off on that.”

But district officials have been pushing for the kitchen’s construction for years in the hope of providing healthier meals to Oakland students. “West Oakland is this place where it’s kind of food insecure, where there’s not any grocery stores, where there’s a lot of liquor stores,” said school board vice president Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who represents District 3, where the kitchen will be located. “Here’s a moment when the school district as an institution [is] interrupting something right there in that community and saying, ‘Hey, fresh food can happen, local food can happen, the sourcing can happen this way, and we can produce something that’s healthy in West Oakland.’”

As early as fall 2019, the industrial-sized kitchen and farm is slated to serve as the main center for food-making and distribution for the OUSD’s 89 schools, making approximately 6 million meals annually. The kitchen will increase the amount of fresh food the district can serve students by providing a central location that is equipped with the designated storage, preparation, and waste management areas, and employee training, required to prepare and distribute 35,000 student meals per day. The center will also host culinary, agricultural and environmental education opportunities for students.

The school board first called for its development, along with a farm and garden for the district, in 2012. That was part of the district’s Facilities Master Plan, which followed recommendations made by the Center for Ecoliteracy in 2011 after conducting a study. In the 2010-2011 collaboration, the sustainability nonprofit reviewed the OUSD’s Nutrition Services program with the goal of determining how the district could improve the nutritional quality of its meals. According to the study, in 2011, Prescott Elementary’s central kitchen—the only existing one in the district—produced 20,000 district-wide meals a day, or 12,000 more than what it was built to make.

The review integrated OUSD’s standards for student health and wellness with a vision former Nutrition Services executive director Jennifer LeBarre had for serving students fresher, more nutritious foods, recommending a five-year plan that supported: developing a 44,000 square-foot central commissary, a 1-acre district farm and garden, and improving existing kitchens.

The project is financed through funds from Alameda County’s Measure J, which passed in 2012, allowing the OUSD to issue up to $475 million in bonds to fund facilities improvements.

The worksite of what is slowly becoming the kitchen mostly consists of rubble, cement and steel right now, but a general structure is taking shape. Steel girders outline the roof of a rectangle the size of a tennis court, and a concrete foundation has been poured. Light filters through the walls and to the ground through roof joists and doorways. A large red Sheedy crane hovers above. Rebar and orange traffic tubes neatly line the dirt ground.

Project construction has been stop-and-go for about two years. According to the school district’s facilities planning and management documents, the delay was due to a demonstration held outside the site in January, 2017, a response to a third party dispute involving the companies that had partnered to complete the project. It brought into question whether the joint venture met the OUSD’s ethical guidelines for local partnerships, according to Hinton Hodge. The district suspended construction and terminated its contract with the team.

Construction began again in February, which Hinton Hodge calls the “re-start.” She said this re-start is responsible for the increase in project budget from the $53 million approved in June, 2017, to $71 million approved by the school board in late August, 2018.  

“We couldn’t use the foundational work from before,” she said, attributing this in part to improper upkeep of the worksite during 2017’s record rains, which coincided with the turnover of the construction management. “You get a price, and the longer you wait, things cost more.”

Since February, the new crew, under project manager Elena Comrie, has gotten a lot done. They’ve put in place the kitchen’s walls, and aligned through-ways with the designated docks where trucks will be loading and delivering food and supplies. They’ve poured the cement sidewalks and tree beds for the visitor and staff parking lot off 29th Street. And they’ve utilized the crane currently on site to finalize the roof’s steel support.

Comrie said about half of current overall construction hiring, and a majority of apprentices, are locals. There are 75 total. The project is expected to create anywhere between 200 and 300 construction jobs by the time it’s completed, with priority given to Oakland residents.

On August 21, district officials and crewmembers gathered on site to celebrate the placement of the last steel beam on the roof of the central kitchen’s structure.

“We are all very eager to have this completed,” said OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki, echoing the sentiments of many people interviewed for this story.

School officials pushed for the kitchen’s construction because they wanted to bring the kitchen facilities up to date. According to the Center for Ecoliteracy’s study study, a majority of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This academic year, that means that their family’s household income is at or below $27,014 annually for a family of 3, with an additional $5,616 for each family member.

But the district didn’t have the kitchen space to cook all of these meals. At the time of the study, the district had 25 total “cooking kitchens,” but relied on only three to produce the majority of its meals. The kitchens prepared and packaged the meals, food distributor Sysco delivered them, and the “satellite” kitchens of the receiving schools reheated and served them. Because the meals came pre-packaged, sometimes days earlier, said Hinton Hodge, many students wouldn’t eat them. And in a school district where a majority of the student population is relying on these meals for their daily nutritional value, that affects student wellness.

Down the street from the kitchen site, that’s also the case at Hoover Elementary School, where Wanda Stewart works. Stewart, who goes by “Ms. Wanda” to her students, is the garden life teacher at the West Oakland school. It is the largest green area in the Hoover Foster neighborhood triangle between Highway 24, 580, and San Pablo Avenue, and located just down the street from S&M Market—a liquor store with signs that advertise it as an one-stop shop for groceries, beer, wine, produce and MoneyGram transactions.

As a former representative for People’s Grocery, a community-based organization that worked to improve West Oakland health and economy through food access, Stewart was a part of the community engagement team for the central kitchen project. When she no longer represented the organization, she stayed.

“They asked me to stay at the table because of the relationships that were being built,” said Stewart. “I wanted to stay at the table because I was interested in the farm part of it.” She was present at the center’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2016 and remained involved after. Her gardening program is an example of what the farm educational component of the new kitchen will be like.

“I don’t know that there needs to be both,” said Stewart, “although I think it’s a great thing to have. So I’m just glad that the food is cooking, and it’s finally going to happen.”

On a recent weekday, Stewart welcomed visitors from the OUSD, Green Schoolyards Inc., and Northern California Land Trust to what she declared is the hottest garden in the world, and started telling the crowd how far the place has come since it was built in 2013. The garden has grown to include tomatoes, zucchinis, garlic, collard greens, and much more. It has acquired a chicken coop, and a small sink and counter area for washing the food shaded by a wooden pergola overhead. A large green archway welcomes visitors in Spanish, English, and Arabic at the garden’s entrance.

Stewart told the visitors about how the garden has helped students cultivate compassion by allowing them to work together. One parent volunteer, Shamika Thomas, said she’s observed this, too.

“When kids are stressed we tell them to take it out on the garden: dig, pull weeds, do all this stuff. And they love it,” she said. “They come back and they’re like, ‘I forgot why I was mad.’”

Thomas has been what Stewart refers to as “garden keeper” for two years now. She said when the gardening program first started, parents took a while to catch on. At first, they were concerned because the students were going home with dirty clothes. Then, as students started bringing back vegetables from the garden, and telling their parents about the in-class lessons they were learning alongside the physical gardening components, they accepted it.

Thomas said she’s happy to hear the central kitchen project’s continuing, but is cautiously optimistic. “I’m going to see if it just pops up,” said Thomas, “and if it’s there, OK. But if it’s not, I’m not going to get my hopes up again.”

Hinton Hodge said the central kitchen could help Oakland adults, as well as kids. “Our business is to serve children obviously and families, but we’re a large organization. There’s a lot of people who work for us in service of young people. And they tend to be people of color, they tend to be lower income, kind of the working poor,” she said. “For me, there’s something about this department being one that is a healthy work environment for folks.”

And it might generate revenue for the district, she said. One way would be through delivering meals to the district’s charter schools at a cost.  Another could be allowing local entrepreneurs and organizations to use the industrial-sized kitchen after school hours for food preparation of their own.

Beyond food preparation, Hinton Hodge hopes the educational center will serve as a space where conversations about food access, justice, and institutional racism can take place.

“Food is powerful,” said Hinton Hodge. “It tells our stories, it tells who we are as a people, it tells our connection to things. It’s a part of our security—or not—in life.”

Corrections notice: This story was updated on 9/11/2018 to correct the location where Cook’s family lived.

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