October 11, 2012
By Katharine Mieszkowski
Public schools in Oakland are looking for major kitchen remodeling with a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.
If approved, Measure J would authorize the Oakland Unified School District to issue as much as $475 million in bonds to improve school facilities.
Along with seismic upgrades and lead-paint removal, the bonds could help underwrite a planned overhaul of school kitchens in the district, including building a new central kitchen in West Oakland. It's part of an effort to improve the food the district serves to students, 70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Oakland has made strides toward serving healthier and fresher food in recent years. For instance, the district now buys more fresh fruits and vegetables from within 250 miles of Oakland. There are salad bars at 67 schools.
But it's infrastructure, not ingredients, that has become the biggest barrier to making lunches healthier and tastier. Many schools have antiquated kitchens - if they have a kitchen at all.
"It's a very attractive museum of kitchen dinosaurs," said Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The facilities limit what food can be served.
"A lot of what is served is processed and prepackaged and frozen," said Ruth Woodruff, who has a first-grader and a fourth-grader attending Chabot Elementary School. "It gets unwrapped and put on trays and heated."
Some schools, like Piedmont Avenue Elementary, don't even have a kitchen. Meals there are reheated in the corner of a multipurpose room.