By Katharine Mieskowski, Bay Citizen
Public schools in Oakland are looking for major kitchen remodeling with a measure on the November ballot.
Along with seismic upgrades and lead-paint removal, the bonds could help underwrite a planned overhaul of kitchen facilities in the district, including building a new central kitchen in West Oakland. It’s part of an ongoing effort to improve the food the district serves to students, some 70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced 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’s 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.
“That’s not sufficient for them to be able to provide appetizing meals,” said Jody London, president of the school board, who is running for re-election. “It’s the difference between cooking on a hotplate and cooking on a stove.”
Meals are cooked on-site at 25 of the 89 schools in the district. The others do no cooking, just reheating, according to a study of food service in Oakland schools conducted last year by the Center for Ecoliteracy.
The district’s 2012 Facilities Master Plan — which the school board approved in May — calls for $43.6 million to renovate and build new kitchens in the district over the next decade.
About $19.1 million would go to build a new central kitchen, or Central Commissary, at the Foster education complex in West Oakland, which currently is used as an administrative office. There also are plans to use about 1.5 acres at that site to develop a farm and garden for the district.
“My vision is to have future urban farmers of America and let students know what it is really like to raise a chicken or a goat, and really get students connected back to where their food comes from,” said Jennifer LeBarre, the district’s director of nutrition services.
The facilities plan also calls for $14 million for 14 new community kitchens, where the public could use school cooking facilities for educational or vocational purposes. An additional $10.5 million would be used to renovate other school kitchens.
“Once you make these changes in the infrastructure, you’re going to be improving the health of the school-age population in Oakland in perpetuity,” Barlow said.
Currently, three central kitchens in the district prepare 73 percent of meals served to students – 6.6 million meals a year, according to the plan. And while the workload has increased, the facilities have not kept pace. One of those central kitchens, at Prescott Elementary School, now makes 20,000 meals a day in a kitchen designed to serve 8,000 a day.
If the Central Commissary were built, ingredients would be delivered, prepped and cooked there. Then they would be transported in hotel pans to schools for cafeteria workers to finish the dishes.
“Instead of getting individually pre-wrapped pizza, they’d get whole-grain pizza shells, sauce, cheese, toppings and then they would make the pizza there and cook it there at the schools,” LeBarre said.
Making school food healthier and tastier has become a priority in Oakland, as more children rely on their schools as a major source of calories.
Thanks to federal subsidies, some of the district’s children from low-income families now are served five meals a day at school – two snacks, breakfast, lunch and dinner. This month, the district expects to serve those five meals to about 3,000 kids, LeBarre said.
“I think that there is a moral obligation to make this the highest-quality food possible,” said Woodruff, a co-founder of the Oakland School Food Alliance, a parents group.
Nationally, school lunches are getting healthier. Under new federal nutrition standards that went into effect at the beginning of this school year, students must be offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week. School lunches also are required to offer more whole grains.
But Oakland is trying to do more than just meet those requirements by doing more scratch cooking and serving fresher foods.
If Oakland voters approve the bond measure, which must receive 55 percent of the vote to pass, the school board would decide how the funds would be allocated. Four of the seven seats on the school board are up for election in November.
There is no organized opposition to Measure J, though it could fail if Oakland property owners don’t want to pay the taxes to fund it. If the measure passes, the district estimates that homeowners could pay a maximum rate of $60 per $100,000 of their houses’ valuations.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.