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Students, district rally to bring back free supper program

on September 10, 2019

After the Oakland Unified Schools District (OUSD) eliminated the district’s free supper program in 2018, student organizers from Oakland Kids First, a city organization that supports youth organizing and campaign work, and the OUSD Superintendent’s Office teamed up to recover and revamp the program. They secured $3.6 million, derived from a city tax on sodas and other sweet drinks, to provide a free dinner for any Oakland public school student during the week, and to support kitchen services to make the supper better and more widely available. 

Since August 12, the program has been back in effect for students across Oakland. The current funding will last two years.

“The supper program is a very, very important program for our kids, and definitely we would like to have it in effect for the foreseeable future,” said district spokesperson Jon Sasaki.

After district-wide budget cuts in 2018, many critical student programs—including certain sports and the supper program—were cut. The supper temporarily returned in January after students started the 2018 school year without after-school meals, but there was no long-term funding in place. According to Roxana Franco, lead organizer at Oakland Kids First, it was in danger of folding without longer-term financial backing. 

Although Oakland students can already receive free breakfast and lunch, activists said that some kids were not getting enough to eat during the school day. Roxana Franco, lead organizer at Oakland Kids First, said the students had common complaints: “The lines are too long, we have 30 minutes to grab food, by the time I’m to the front, I have two minutes left to eat and I’m not allowed to eat in class.”

“Our young peoples’ nutrition, and access to high quality foods is something that every Oakland resident should be concerned about, because that’s a determining factor in longevity,” she continued.

So student activists and the Oakland Superintendent’s office created a campaign, called “Free Supper for Hungry Minds.”

The group worked with Oakland Council President Rebecca Kaplan to secure funding from Measure HH, a tax residents passed in 2016 which placed a tax of one cent per fluid ounce on sodas and other sweetened beverages. According to an Oakland Kids First press release, “Kaplan championed their cause through contentious budget negotiations to help secure approximately $3.6 million (about 18% of the taxes collected) of Measure HH funds over the next two years to invest in OUSD’s Department of Nutrition Services.”

75 percent of OUSD students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, Sasaki says. And 46 percent of children in East Oakland live beneath the federal poverty line, according to the Oakland Kids First press release.

“There are so many kids that don’t receive meals other than what they get at school,” said Gwen Taylor, the Supper Program Supervisor for the district. “We have a large number of homeless students in our district and so we try hard to make everything available to them, as far as breakfast, lunch and the supper meal.”

The program currently serves supper at 29 schools, and the OUSD plans to add at least ten more schools as the year continues, according to Taylor. Students from any school can receive supper at any site offering the meals. Many students eat a hot meal before attending after-school enrichment programs or sports, but participation in those programs is not a requirement to receive supper.

The October supper menu, which rotates on a bi-weekly basis, will include cheese and pepperoni pizza, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken patties, nachos, roasted chicken, burritos and chicken tenders. Students receiving a meal have around 45 minutes during the serving period to walk up, grab a meal and go. 

“The most important thing is that we were allowed to do the program again this year,” said Taylor. “We’re hoping that we continue to be able to do the program in order to add more schools on. Our biggest thing right now is being able to reach out to as many of the schools that are interested in having the supper program.”

The OUSD plans to focus on building and supporting a central kitchen system for Oakland’s schools. Currently, there are only 17 kitchens in Oakland schools. Oakland High School and the Prescott School serve as central cooking centers for most of the 118 schools in the district, according to Taylor. A larger, high-tech central kitchen is slated to open next year in West Oakland to improve cooking productivity and access to food, according to Taylor.

“We’re really hoping that we can ensure that these services continue to be provided for generations to come,” says Franco.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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