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A photo from National School Lunch Week in Oakland, 2010. Photo by Roberto Daza.

When school’s out, where can Oakland kids go for meals?

on December 17, 2019

In the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), all students have access to school breakfast, lunch and supper through the Community Eligibility Provision, which is a federal program that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve food to students without collecting money from them or asking them to apply. This robust access to food serves a critical need for students during the school week. According to the OUSD’s website, the school nutrition services provide approximately 7,500 breakfasts, 20,000 lunches, 10,00 snacks and 500 dinners to students every day. But what happens during mealtime over holiday breaks? 

Staring on December 23, Oakland schools will close down for the holidays. During this time, students won’t be able to receive three meals a day from schools. “We do do a summer lunch program, because it’s … a couple months, and we need to make sure that we make sure that our kids are supported,” said John Sasaki, director of communications for the school district. “We aren’t able to provide the same service during the holiday. That said, we’re very connected to the Alameda County Food Bank and they do great work supplying groceries they supply other support to our families.”

The food bank provides groceries, including produce, meat, fruit, eggs, bread and dry goods, as well as hot meals at soup kitchens. The bank’s network of partners—agencies with whom they partner to put on food distribution events—is sprawling. They partner with over 200 food pantries, hot meal programs, senior centers and nonprofits. On their website, anyone can use their “Get Food Now” functionality to find the nearest free grocery distribution site or place to eat a meal. At these events, all you need to do is show up.

Sasaki said that the school’s community managers, who are employed by the district at “high need schools,” pass along information about food bank events during the holiday breaks. These managers aren’t present at every school, he said, and if they aren’t, the role of disseminating information about food is the responsibility of school administrators and front office staff.

Michael Altfest, the director of community engagement and marketing for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, wrote in an email that people assume the demand for assistance increases over the holiday season, and that’s certainly true. “But what people general don’t know is that the single biggest indicator of spikes in need is school breaks,” Alftest wrote. “That is, when children aren’t in school and can’t depend on school meals, their families struggle to fill that gap at home. Children make up the largest group we serve, so need spikes during winter break, spring break and throughout the summer.”

“It’s always one of our goals after school breaks to make sure that children can return to the classroom well-nourished and ready to learn,” Altfest continued. “Anyone who is need of assistance—this time of year, or any time—can call our emergency food helpline (800-870-FOOD) or visit foodnow.net to find a pantry or meal program close to them.” He wrote that people can also call the same 800 number to learn about special holiday meal programs.

That said, he added, when schools are closed, food bank staff aren’t typically able to host mobile pantries or other programs they do during the rest of the year.

Tia Shimada, the director of programs at California Food Policy Advocates in Oakland, said that school meals are a critical resource, and that even summer breaks—when the meal program does continue to run—can pose a problem for students’ access to food. “We know, looking back over years and years of data, that the kids that were able to reach those programs during the summer is as a really low number, compared to the number of kids you can reach during the school year,” Shimada said.

Since school meals are not available year round, she notes that there are aid programs that run non-stop. “For us, this hammers home the point of the importance of programs like CalFresh, which is giving families access to nutrition benefits all year around,” Shimada said. CalFresh is California’s version of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Program, an aid program run by the federal government, provides a modest food budget to recipients via an electronic benefits transfer card that works like a debit card. People of any age can use SNAP, including people who have a regular income and people who are experiencing homelessness. 

School meals in the OUSD will resume on January 6. And even during the school year, Sasaki notes, some students struggle with getting enough food at home. “A lot of our kids are in a situation where they may go home and they don’t know what they’re going to have dinner,” Sasaki said. Even students who eat meals on campus, he said, “may not have anything when they get home. And that’s that’s an incredibly difficult to struggle with as a young person, not knowing if you’re going to get food when you get home. And so we do everything we can to ensure that they get a nutritious lunch, breakfast and even supper, if they need, at school.”

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