Forging the Food Justice Path: Part 5

Forging The Food Justice Path: Part 5

Fri 13 Sep 2013

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow


Oakland schools had made a number of improvements in school food before Smith came on the scene. This was due largely to the dogged determination of district food service director Jennifer LeBarre, who recalls earlier days when she poured nacho cheese sauce into a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and called it lunch. But since then, the district has banned soda (even before the state mandated it), trans fat, deep fryers, high-sodium foods, and most white bread products. It introduced “meatless Mondays,” universal breakfast, daily fresh produce at every school, increased fresh food prepared onsite, and local purchasing.

In collaboration with several community organizations, Oakland Unified also organized weekly farmers’ markets like the one at Castlemont at twenty-two of its ninety-one schools—mostly in communities known as “food deserts,” where there is little access to fresh produce. With the help of the local food bank, the district offers a program that sends some of the poorest students home on Friday afternoons with backpacks filled with healthy food to last the weekend. It also provides a mobile food pantry at two schools twice a month, which attracts hundreds of students and parents. Salad bars now operate in sixty-two schools; some are so popular that strawberries and other fresh fruit have to be rationed.

Still, there are limits to what even dogged determination can achieve when a school system faces the kind of structural obstacles confronting Oakland and many other districts. Oakland schools, for example, serve some 36,854 meals a day—on a very slim budget (with a maximum reimbursement from the federal government of $2.77 per lunch and $1.51 per breakfast).

Fewer than one in four Oakland schools has a working kitchen. Even in schools with kitchens, most of the equipment is so old that it no longer works. Many of the 300 food service workers do little more than rip the plastic off pre-packaged food and pop it in the microwave. Real change to provide healthy food for all students would require changing a complex and deeply flawed system.

That’s why Smith approved a collaboration between Oakland Unified and the Center for Ecoliteracy, a pioneer in school lunch reform for more than a decade, to develop a comprehensive Rethinking School Lunch Oakland feasibility study about reforming the district’s school food environment. The aim of the study was to determine what it would take to transform Oakland school food, based on the model of the Center’s ten-point Rethinking School Lunch Initiative, which addresses every step of the process from procurement to waste.

In addition to a thorough analysis of the obstacles to improving the quality of food served to the district’s 38,000 students—70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—the study made a number of recommendations. Among them are the following:

• Develop a 1.5-acre farm and central commissary kitchen in West Oakland.
• Refurbish seventeen cooking and fifty-eight finishing kitchens across the district to move away from pre-packaged meals and toward cooking with fresh ingredients.
• Transform ordinary school kitchens into “school-community” kitchens that local residents can use during off-hours for cooking, culinary training, and business development. Says Smith, “Imagine school not only being a place where you go for a PTA meeting, but also where you go to do some cooking with community members—a place where you can have twenty-five, forty people. That starts to change the character and nature of the place. As a community member, you start to feel it’s yours.”

Achieving these changes, projected to cost $26 to $27 million over five years, will take a lot of effort, given the series of budget cuts the district has withstood, the need for significant facility upgrades to meet seismic requirements, and public controversy following the superintendent’s decision to close some schools in order to become more cost-efficient.

Still, Smith is confident that the community will support healthy, local food in ways that nurture families, communities, and the environment for all students. “Look at all the food leaders who are already here in Oakland,” he says. Among them are People’s Grocery, a food justice organization based in West Oakland; Revolution Foods, a for-profit firm that offers healthy, freshly prepared meals to a growing number of schools nationwide; Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest not-for-profit health plans in the nation; and the Oakland office of The California Endowment, a public foundation that announced in 2010 that it will dedicate $1 billion during the coming decade to improve the health and health care of Californians.

Children of color are too often blamed for poor outcomes in schools and in life, Smith says, as if those outcomes are determined by their own efforts alone, and not affected by the adults in their lives and the systemic forces that do not pro- vide support or that reduce chances of success.

But truly changing outcomes for young people, especially when it comes to equity issues that have plagued a community for generations, can occur only when those systemic inequities are addressed, and adults throughout a community show genuine empathy for its youth. In this respect, Smith says he is inspired both by his own personal experience and by the work of people such as Father Greg Boyle, who helps former gang members gain jobs, training, and education in Los Angeles. Drawing from the words of Boyle (who in turn quoted Mother Teresa), Smith says, “If we behaved as if we belonged to each other, what would we do? We would turn toward each other.”

Then he adds softly, “If you really believe that, it changes how you are in the world. And I believe that.”

To learn more about Ecoliterate, visit the Center for Ecoliteracy’s website. To purchase the book, visit Amazon or your favorite independent bookseller.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. In this story, Oakland school Superintendent Tony Smith shares his vision of a “full-service community school district” that provides an array of services to students and their families so that all children have an equal chance to thrive.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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