Published in Oakland Local, November 20, 2009

Tavon Frazier is a skinny 9-year-old squirming in front of his Styrofoam lunch tray. He’s eaten most of his chicken taco and his friends, all wearing the navy polo shirts of East Oakland’s Korematsu Discovery Academy, are wiggling around him, chewing on their flour tortillas and nibbling on baby carrots. Tavon didn’t stop at the salad bar on his way to the cafeteria table today. He says sometimes he’ll get applesauce when they have it, but mostly he doesn’t like vegetables, especially broccoli and carrots. His ideal cafeteria meal would be “donuts and cupcakes and a cake,” he says with a mischievous sideways grin.

Efforts to make sure that Tavon doesn’t end up eating donuts every day and maybe even learns to like broccoli are underway in Oakland’s public schools, though how successful these efforts will be remains to be seen. Between a convoluted and chronically underfunded system, divergent visions for what exactly healthy food is, and a cast of characters that range from bureaucrats to poor kids to soccer moms to farm-to-table visionaries, the school food situation in Oakland is messy. But the consequences for inaction are no joke.

Today, Tavon is part of an experiment. His lunch is made from scratch in a kitchen that stands some 50 feet from his table.

“It’s a totally different menu than what’s being served in the rest of the elementary schools,” says Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition services with Oakland Unified School District, as she watches kindergarteners line up for lunch. “We’re doing it here as a pilot project because we’re trying to see whether or not we have the capability with our equipment, our facilities, our staff.” LeBarre says scratch cooking will be rolled out at Manzanita, Bella Vista and Lincoln elementary schools next. “And then our big hurdle is to see how we can take the same food and do it at the central kitchen level.”

And it’s this kind of systemic change that advocates like Jesus Rodriguez, a community organizer with Oakland Community Organizations, a large faith- and community-based group, are hoping to see. Recently OCO joined forces with Oakland School Food Alliance, another parent and community organization, to figure out how to bring more fresh, healthy food to kids throughout the district. “One of the main goals of this project is to have real cooking in every school,” he says.

LeBarre supports that goal, though the definition of “real cooking” is up for debate. One might envision pizzas that start with flour, water and yeast being rolled out by toque-wearing chefs. The district’s definition is closer to canned sauce and shredded cheese on a pre-made pizza shell. “I don’t foresee us going back to baking,” LeBarre says, citing staff and facility limitations. “It’s a compromise we make.”

Melissa Newel, a Chabot parent and OSFA member, says she’s pleased to see the changes the district has made in the last several years, like cutting back on trans fats, using more whole grains, and adding 42 salad bars throughout the district, but she’d like to see the entire system remodeled. “While we think the salad bars are great, we view them as a band-aids,” she says.

Other school food reformers are not as diplomatic. “The food that they’re eating is bad,” says Melrose Leadership Academy teacher Gehry Oatey, who writes a blog called The Schoolyard Foodie where he criticizes the district’s approach to nutrition. He says students in his classes find it hard to concentrate because they often don’t eat lunch, in part because they think the cafeteria offerings are “hella nasty.”

But according to Joyce Peters, a dietician working with OUSD and the Alameda County Department of Health, Oatey’s vision of fresh food from local farms doesn’t take into consideration the reality of feeding the mercurial tastes of kids. “We have the parents who feel that the food isn’t healthy or who feel that it’s overly processed. And then we have the students who decide what to eat,” she says. The problem, she says, is the two opinions often differ. “When we have healthier food — they don’t eat,” she says with a laugh. And when the district is serving so many poor kids who rely on school meals for their primary nutrition source, she says this is a big problem.

Whether the problem is undernourishment, too many calories, or just the wrong kind of calories, what the city’s kids eat has serious implications.

“I’m worried about obesity,” says Townsend Miller, Tavon’s grandfather, and a daily volunteer at his East Oakland school. Well over six feet tall, Miller towers over the kids while settling arguments in the lunch line. He describes himself as obese and says he’s got diabetes, something he doesn’t want his four grandchildren to contend with.

While 4th-grader Tavon is far from obese, his chances of ending up that way are pretty good, according to the numerous public health studies. And obesity is closely linked with diabetes, among other health problems. Nationally, one in three children will likely be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But in East Oakland, where Tavon lives and where 98 percent of his classmates qualify for free/reduced lunch, the numbers are more dire. “For children of color, or children living in low-income neighborhoods, with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s more like a one in two chance,” says Stephanie Hamilton, a district health consultant, referring to a 2004 policy brief prepared by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

“The people who are really experiencing the brunt of this epidemic are the kids in the flatlands,” Oatey says. But while one might assume the more affluent folks in the hills have been pushing hardest for school food reform, that hasn’t been the case.

It was a group of parents from the flatlands as well as the hills who got so fed up with prepackaged grilled cheeses and trans-fat-laden burritos that last year they attempted secession. In fall 2008 several schools including Thornhill, Montclair, Manzanita SEED, and Think College Now approached Revolution Foods, a private school food vendor, with the intention of breaking off from the district’s nutrition program. When they learned they could not negotiate their own contract with an outside provider, they reached out to other schools and community groups to broaden support for reform.

In April 2009, parents and community advocates from some 25 schools and community organizations met with LeBarre to ask for changes to the nutrition program. Around this time, the group, which began to call itself Oakland School Food Alliance, gave up the goal of using Revolution Foods. “As we became more involved in the issue and what the district faces — it makes 30,000 meals per day — we realized that we need to create change from within,” Newel says.

“I certainly respect the parents,” LeBarre says. “I think we are working together to come to an understanding about where we want school food to go. I think we’re on the same page,” she says. “It’s a struggle to do everything we want because of the limited funding.”

And a lack of funding is where most discussions about changing school food end up. LeBarre is counting on some $300,000 in stimulus money to prop up the district’s haggard equipment — a much-needed service since the 25 of 91 schools that have functioning kitchens, like Korematsu Academy, often have broken or poorly functioning appliances. LeBarre says Santa Fe Elementary, Oakland High School, Edna Brewer Middle School and others will get new coolers and ovens.

State funding, at 22 cents per free/reduced lunch, is not expected to increase. In fact, LeBarre says the district can no longer rely on steady state income. She says California has failed to fully reimburse the district for the last four years. Last year, after the economy tanked and more students started eating meals at school, state funding fell some $200,000 short, requiring the district to shut down salad bars in order to keep providing the regular meal program This move upset many, though the frustration seems largely targeted toward the convoluted funding system.

LeBarre and school food advocates across the country are eagerly awaiting the soon-expected reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which regulates federal school food reimbursements. President Obama has signaled his intention to increase funding to the program by $1 billion, though LeBarre says that increase may not come for another year due to the economy. School food advocates are hoping for at least a $1 increase per meal from Washington, which would bring the per-meal reimbursement up to about $3.70 per free/reduced meal.

While hoping for more federal funding, the district is simultaneously making amends for past mismanagement. When the state took over the district in 2003, it found that nutrition services had overspent its budget and required it to repay what it deemed a loan. More than $200,000 per year of its annual budget of about $15 million now goes back to the state.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Ann Cooper, the former Berkeley nutrition director, who many point to as the model for the kind of leadership needed to improve school food. “That’s coming out of children’s mouths. That amount should be forgiven.”

Cooper knows the inner workings of district budgets well. She negotiated for money from the city of Berkeley’s general fund for school food, as well as the return of an obscure funding source known as Meals for Needy Pupils to Berkeley’s nutrition budget. This money, which in Oakland totals some $600,000 annually, was originally intended for school food funding when it was passed as a parcel tax in some districts in the late 1970s. But later tax rules were changed so that the money could be used by the general fund.

“The money could be and should be for the nutrition of the school children, and it is not being used for that purpose,” says Chabot parent Newel. “Were the school board to allocate the money back to nutrition, it could make a big difference.”

LeBarre says there is no movement toward bringing that money back to nutrition services, nor toward forgiving the state loan.

With district funding news so dismal, some parent groups are skirting the school food program to concentrate on auxiliary projects like school gardens and produce stands. Glenview Elementary recently opened a Tuesday farm table, and 12 more stands offering at-cost produce organized by East Bay Asian Youth Center have started opening in lower-income schools this fall.

As for OCO and Oakland School Food Alliance, they’re working with local businesses and State Senator Loni Hancock’s office to raise money for a feasibility study — which could cost upwards of $100,000 — to better understand what the district needs to completely overhaul the system.

“This is a key part to moving forward,” says OCO organizer Rodriguez. “We don’t really have the picture to know what it looks like right now.”

Behind Prescott Elementary in West Oakland a narrow driveway leads to the loading dock of the Oakland Unified School District’s central kitchen. In a space originally designed to prepare food for 500 students, some two dozen workers assemble 20,000 meals every day — about two-thirds of the district’s breakfasts, lunches and snacks.

Boxes of paper products and prepackaged snacks like “Whole Grain All-Sports Bites — Vanilla” (containing both partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup) squeeze into hallway corners and tower over workers’ heads.

One worker, wearing an “Expect success” apron, rubber gloves, and a black cap that mostly covers her graying hair, stands at a counter and assembles bagged lunches for a school field trip. Into each brown paper sack goes one prepackaged ham sandwich, Bear Grahams, baby carrots, a Best Foods mayonnaise packet, and one locally grown, pesticide-free Fuji apple.

Picking through the box of apples, the worker looks for apples without black spots or other flaws. “This must be something they’re trying,” she says, looking a little frustrated with the apples’ condition. Then she brings over a sack lunch she’d packed earlier and shows off a different apple — a shiny, perfectly shaped Gala — and nods with approval.

“As we do more and more from local, not everything’s going to be perfect,” says LeBarre standing next to the box of apples. “Instead of having people turn their nose up at it, I think it’s part of the education we’ll have to do.”

A few feet away, four workers stand beside an assembly line machine — they toss handfuls of shredded iceberg lettuce into plastic trays that slide down a narrow motorized track. The machine wraps the trays in more plastic and two women pile them neatly into metal racks. When the racks are full, another worker grabs a stack and lugs them down the hall to the cooler.

“Normally it would be romaine,” says Donnie Barclift, the field supervisor who oversees this central kitchen. LeBarre nods, “The romaine went up by four dollars a case,” she says. “And when we’re using as much romaine as we normally do, we have to make changes to that. We can’t afford it.”

And it’s in the midst of this complicated situation, where a price fluctuation means kids are eating iceberg instead of romaine, where workers are uncomfortable with variation, where some kids have a 10-minute lunch period, and where schools range from 1 to 100 percent poor, that 4th-grader Tavon Frazier hopes to become a firefighter. If only he’ll eat his vegetables.