Published in Oakland Tribune, November 20, 2009

OAKLAND — Just as good food brings people together, so does spoiled milk. And in public school cafeterias, parents say, there’s plenty of it.

Anxious to rid their schools of expired food, processed “pouches” and high-fructose corn syrup, families from dozens of Oakland neighborhoods, from the Montclair heights to the East Oakland flatlands, have banded together to push for an overhaul of Oakland’s school lunch program.

The challenge of remaking a poorly funded system that serves 27,000 lunches each day in 91 cafeterias might sound near-impossible. But grass-roots efforts to tear down the barriers between kids and healthy food seem to be gaining momentum.

The Oakland School Food Alliance is the largest and the most politically focused initiative. It formed in late 2008 after Gail Adey, a parent at Manzanita SEED Elementary School in East Oakland, inquired about outsourcing Manzanita’s meal service to the Oakland-based company Revolution Foods.

Revolution Foods doesn’t work in select schools within a district, but the company gave Adey the names of six other schools with the same idea. Adey soon began meeting with staff members, students and families across the city about shared cafeteria challenges, and later asked Oakland Community Organizations, a coalition of community and religious leaders, to get involved.

Now, the Oakland School Food Alliance includes at least 25 schools.

“There were probably things happening at almost every school in the district, but nobody was making any headway, because it was just one school at a time,” Adey said. “We realized that we could have the leverage to make systemic changes.”

As the alliance researches school lunch models and builds public pressure to change how cafeteria fare is purchased, prepared, distributed and served, a smaller coalition also has taken root. The Oakland Food Web, a pilot project in four schools, is working to share ideas and generate excitement about farmers markets, gardens and nutrition education.

In addition, through a partnership between the school district and the East Bay Asian Youth Center, farmers markets have opened this fall at 10 Oakland public schools — many of them in so-called “food deserts,” parts of the city in which fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce.

Now, at least 13 schools have farmers markets, a model the district aims to replicate in schools across the city.

Groceries made easy

Glenview Elementary School, located in the foothills east of Lake Merritt, is one of four pilot schools in the Oakland Food Web. Glenview students compost their lunch food, tend the school garden and, now, have the chance to shop for groceries right in front of their school.

For two hours every Tuesday, volunteers sell organic produce at cost to kids, teachers, parents and anyone else who’s hungry. They also give free tastings of a different item each week. Unlike the other new farmers markets, which are in lower-income areas, Glenview’s stand was started by the school PTA. On a sunny, fall afternoon, children crowded around piles of organic baby tomatoes, apples, golden beets, grapes and other produce.

Donovan Zedd, 9, came with $2. He left with collard greens, watermelon and grapes, his favorite after-school snack. “Now, every Tuesday my mom gives me money,” Donovan said. “She wants me to come buy stuff for dinner here.”

Edwina Smith, a second-grade teacher, said that when she read “Ant and the Three Little Figs” this year, she was surprised to discover that most of the children already knew what the fruit looked and tasted like — a first.

The big picture

The Oakland school district’s nutrition services director, Jennifer LeBarre, attends the Oakland School Food Alliance meetings. “I’m encouraged,” LeBarre said. “We share a common vision with where we need to go with our school meals.”

LeBarre’s department began to make improvements even before the grass-roots efforts emerged. Her team has installed salad bars in 42 school cafeterias, and the majority of the food is now prepared from scratch rather than simply reheated in the microwave.

Still, the offerings are a far cry from the organic milk and grass-fed beef served at Berkeley’s public schools. On Monday, Oakland’s elementary school children had three main course options: a cheeseburger, veggie burger or fish nuggets.

“I feel like the district is trying,” said Christy Getz, a parent at Glenview Elementary School who’s active in the Oakland Food Web. “But I’m sure it’s overwhelming. Where do you start?”

In her experience, she said, changes to the menu often seem limited to “taking a corn dog and trying to make it healthier.”

Though salad bars are a welcome supplement to the main course, parents say, the challenge facing LeBarre’s team is to make healthy food a central part of the school lunch meal, which serves a disproportionate number of low-income students.

Of all of the school lunches served each day in the district’s schools, about 23,500 — 87 percent — go to children who receive a free or reduced-price meal, according to data collected by the nutrition services department.

Children whose family income is too high to qualify for a discount are much less likely to eat cafeteria food; just 28 percent choose to buy their meals in the cafeteria each day, compared with 88 percent of their lower-income counterparts.

Hefty cost

Ann Cooper, the self-described “renegade lunch lady” who reinvented Berkeley school meals, has moved on to the 29,000-student Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, where she in the midst of another transformation.

Cooper said both school districts conducted feasibility studies before any major changes took place. LeBarre and School Food Alliance members believe it’s necessary to do the same in Oakland.

Here’s the catch: The cost can be well over $100,000, money that cannot be carved out of LeBarre’s budget. Most school lunch programs scrape by on federal reimbursements and full-priced lunch sales; typically, they are not supported with money from their school district’s general fund.

In Boulder, for example, Cooper’s team aims to raise $750,000 in private donations to implement the changes. The next challenge for the Oakland School Food Alliance will be to find funding for the project in the midst of an economic crisis.

“I feel like the will is there,” said Ruth Woodruff, a parent leader in the alliance. “Also, we’re at a point in time where the money is not.”