A cafeteria lunch at Madison Park Academy in Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han

Growing up in the ’80s, when public schools began to embrace processed and packaged foods for meal programs, I rarely ate in the school cafeteria. When I did dine on a 50-cent lunch — usually on Fridays, for doughy slabs of cardboard topped with a burnt veneer of cheese that, if you squinted and used your imagination, sort of looked and tasted like pizza  — it was for purely social reasons: to eat with friends.

Although, like many kids of that time, the contents of my bagged lunch were hardly health food — often, Oscar Mayer baloney sandwiches on white bread and Capri Suns — I was privileged to have homecooked meals before and after school, each and every day. Had the cafeteria been my only option for lunch — and my only reliable meal of the day — there’s a good chance my understanding and appreciation of food would be pretty different today.

Oakland Unified School District serves about 42,000 meals a day for 86 K-12 schools, 20 district-run child development centers and 10 charter schools in Oakland and Hayward. About 73% of the students who attend OUSD schools qualify for free, or reduced-price lunches, and many of these students depend on these meals for their daily nutrition. Fortunately, for the latest generations of OUSD kids, the district has been making meaningful steps to improve the quality, taste and look of meals served at school, and provide more access and understanding to kids about why good food matters.

Last week, I was invited by the Oakland Food Policy Council to tour OUSD’s kitchen facilities to get a first-hand look at how and where its meals are prepared, and to taste what students in Oakland schools are actually eating.

A mural in the cafeteria at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han

With an annual budget of $21 million, Oakland Unified spends about $8.8 million to purchase food and supplies. It would be easy to assume that OUSD would cut corners on quality — buying more pre-made and processed foods — in order to save money, but the district has found that sourcing higher quality, more nutritious, more locally sourced fresh food, and having more meals prepared on site, is not only the best thing for their students’ health, but can also be accomplished within budget.

In 2001, OUSD made waves by becoming the first California district to ban the sale of soda and candy on campuses. Its school meal program has eliminated, or limited, foods with “ingredients of concern,” including those made with high fructose corn syrup, added trans fats, or ones containing high levels of sodium. There are no fryers in cafeteria kitchens, kids eat with real forks instead of “sporks” and chocolate milk is now only served once a week on Mondays.

Vegetables being packed for school lunches at Prescott Elementary School’s central kitchen. Photo: Sarah Han
Vegetables being packed for school lunches at Prescott Elementary School’s central kitchen. Photo: Sarah Han

Other efforts by the district include the implementation of the Farm to School Program, which works with local farms to add more produce and legumes on school menus and to offer more nutrition education in school gardens and weekly menu programs. These latter include “Lean and Green Wednesdays,” which offers more vegetarian options and “California Thursdays,” which serves a meal completely made with ingredients sourced from California farmers and vendors.

In 2016, in a partnership with the Oakland Food Policy Council, OUSD began working with the Berkeley-based Center for Good Food Purchasing (CGFP) to implement the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), which helps the district buy sustainable and health-focused foods for its meal program. CGFP has helped OUSD source from local farms and companies that provide nutritious, minimally processed ingredients, but that also follow fair-labor practices and pay their employees a living wage. Last year, the district received a rating of four out of five stars from CGFP, an improvement of two stars in just two years.

Many changes are due to the “Head Lunch Lady”

OUSD Nutrition Services executive director Jennifer LeBarre, or “Head Lunch Lady” as she calls herself, has worked at the district for the past 20 years and has been behind many of the changes that have occurred in Oakland Unified’s cafeterias. Her department’s latest initiative, Rethinking Oakland School Lunch, takes a holistic look at nutrition in school, starting with focusing on the facilities where meals are made.

Under LeBarre, OUSD is updating the kitchens on campuses and is in the process of building a large central commissary for the district. When completed, the new facilities will be a game-changer, resulting in more scratch-made meals served in cafeterias that use fresh and locally sourced ingredients.

OUSD Nutrition Services workers prepare and package meals at Prescott Elementary Central Kitchen in West Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han

20,000 meals a day prepared at Prescott Elementary

The first stop on the OUSD kitchens tour was Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland, which currently houses one of the district’s three central kitchens. LeBarre said the facility was originally meant to make 9,000 meals a day, but today prepares about 20,000 meals a day. Here, food is delivered, stored, prepared and packaged.

In a back room of the central kitchen, we witnessed workers in a production line portioning wholegrain cheese ravioli into individual serving trays using what LeBarre called a “spoodle” (a combination ladle and spoon). The trays were then sealed with plastic and set on large racks to be refrigerated. LeBarre said the pasta is sourced from Community Grains, an Oakland-based company founded by Oliveto co-owner Bob Klein, which uses whole-milled Northern California-grown grains. Yes, kids in Oakland are getting fancy pasta, the kind you’d normally see on shelves at Market Hall and Whole Foods.

But this stop on the tour revealed the drawbacks of the district relying so heavily on relatively small central kitchens to feed its student body. Storage space is limited at Prescott, and some of the foods that are delivered are frozen and packaged products, like ones you might find at a gas station convenience store. Even food that’s made on-site from raw ingredients, like fresh antibiotic-free chicken drumsticks, are marinated and cooked here, but are then individually packaged and frozen to be shipped to schools, where they are reheated for lunch two days later.

LeBarre said OUSD is trying to eliminate prepackaged food and develop recipes that can be made at the schools. One of the things that will help make this happen is an industrial combination oven called the Angelo Po that acts as a stove top, steamer and oven.

An OUSD Nutrition Services worker walks by an Angelo Po combination oven at Prescott’s central kitchen. These ovens will allow schools to prepare fresh, scratch-made food for cafeteria meals. Photo: Sarah Han
An OUSD Nutrition Services worker walks by an Angelo Po combination oven at Prescott’s central kitchen. These ovens will allow schools to prepare fresh, scratch-made food for cafeteria meals. Photo: Sarah Han

Every OUSD school (except those with 25 students or fewer) will get one of these magic ovens that cuts cooking time in half. “A school will be able to cook pasta without boiling water” using one of the ovens, said LeBarre.

The Center will have a huge kitchen, farm, education center

But even bigger changes will happen for school lunches in about two years, when OUSD’s new central kitchen, The Center, is up and running. Located at 2850 West St., the former location of Marcus Foster School, the site is now an empty lot, but will eventually house a 32,000-square-foot kitchen, an instructional farm, an education center, administrative offices and a large truck loading dock. The plans include a greenhouse, an outdoor pizza oven and a produce market, where LeBarre imagines students could sell jars of “Oakland salsa” made with produce grown on the farm.

The central kitchen will have more refrigerators for bulk deliveries, a produce prep room to work with seasonal and fresh fruits and vegetables and a meat prep room, which would allow OUSD to provide quality lunch meat, something LeBarre said isn’t easy to source. Rather than buying pre-sliced turkey meat, for example, the kitchen could work with raw turkey that they’d cook and slice on-site to send to schools.

This empty lot at 2850 West St. will eventually become The Center, featuring a central kitchen, an instructional farm, an education center, administrative offices and a large truck-loading dock for OUSD. Photo: Sarah Han

When it opens and is fully operational in 2020, The Center will be the most comprehensive central kitchen at a school district.

But before then, OUSD must remodel outdated kitchens, and sometimes build new facilities, into finishing kitchens, which will have the proper equipment to receive and cook all meals made at The Center. The kitchen updates are made possible by the USDA’s Equipment Assistance Grant, which prioritizes funding for schools where 50% or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. So far, three kitchens have been remodeled, and another 12 are in the works.

The salad bar at Madison Academy in East Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han

A California-sourced meal at Madison Academy

For our last stop on the tour, we visited an example of one of OUSD’s 30 cooking kitchen. Food can be delivered directly by vendors to a cooking kitchen, where it is prepared, cooked and served on site. Unlike finishing kitchens, cooking kitchens will not depend on The Center, although it may receive some additional support from the central commissary once it’s up and running.

At around noon, we arrived at Madison Academy, a business and art-focused school for grades 6-12 located in East Oakland. Groups of kids were finishing up lunch as we entered the cafeteria, but the smell of barbecued chicken was still in the air. Some of us on the tour opted to try the $4.25 meal — a choice of BBQ chicken with half a wholewheat pita or a bean, rice and cheese burrito. Either option came with a salad, a small whole fruit, a carton of 1% low-fat milk, plus access to a salad bar, where black beans, roasted potato cubes, shredded carrots, cucumber slices and more salad greens could supplement a meal. As we happened to be at Madison for California Thursday, all of the food we ate had been sourced within the state.

Madison Academy is one of about 30 OUSD schools with a working kitchen. Photo: Sarah Han

Tucking in, I had few expectations — we were eating lunch prepared by a four-star school district, not a four-star restaurant, after all — but I came away impressed. Unlike the cafeteria chicken I recall from my youth — nuggets and patties made of composite poultry parts — the drumsticks on my tray were visibly real chicken. They were moist and unexpectedly flavorful, too. Overall, the meal smelled, looked and tasted like real whole food. And while that’s not the most glowing review of a meal I could give, it’s still significant, especially when we were reminded that this may be the best and most nutritious meal a student might eat all day.

And that’s why LeBarre and her staff continue to do the work they do. As Le Barre put it, “Good food is possible for every community.”

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...