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Open-Campus Policies Eat Away at School Nutrition

By Katharine Mieszkowski, Center for Investigative Reporting

Scott Sowko, a sophomore at Berkeley High School, leaves Bongo Burger after lunching off-campus. School officials say one-tenth of the students take advantage of the healthy lunch served in the school cafeteria. (Noah Berger/Center for Investigative Reporting)

Berkeley High School students have lunch off-campus at Bongo Burger. School officials say one-tenth of the students take advantage of the healthy lunch served in the school cafeteria. (Noah Berger/Center for Investigative Reporting)

At lunchtime, hundreds of Berkeley High School students rush off campus, leaving behind healthy meals served in the cafeteria. Many of them head to Bongo Burger, Top Dog and other joints selling high-fat, high-sugar alternatives.

Six miles away at Oakland High School, the cafeteria is mobbed. There are not enough seats for everyone, so some students eat lunch outside on picnic tables while others eat in classrooms. No one goes off campus to pick up food from Wingstop or the AMPM convenience store.

The difference? The Oakland High students are no longer allowed to leave campus during lunch.

At Berkeley High, where famed chef Alice Waters’ nonprofit, the Edible Schoolyard Project, has consulted on the menu, school officials say one-tenth of the students take advantage of the healthy lunch on campus.

“Kids could be eating a good meal for free, or they could be running off campus, and in a hurry … they’re going to buy the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and a Coke.”

In recent years, lawmakers, regulators and school districts have tried to improve students’ health by curbing the sale of junk food and tightening nutritional standards for school food. But those efforts are undermined when students can leave campus to eat whatever they want, as they can at dozens of Bay Area high schools. Based on the experience in Oakland, closing campuses while offering free lunches can be an effective strategy.  

First lady Michelle Obama has made improving what students eat a signature cause. Just this school year, cafeterias nationwide have been implementing new nutritional standards for the lunches they serve. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on new regulations for all other foods sold in schools, including from vending machines. But the idea of keeping kids on campus so that they eat healthy lunches is not part of the national debate.

The Oakland Unified School District closed the Oakland High campus last fall to cut down on absenteeism after lunch and reduce break-ins, drug use and trespassing in surrounding neighborhoods, said then-Principal Jeffrey Rogers.

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