For the past year, students in Oakland have been getting something different on their cafeteria trays — not frozen pizza or a burrito assembled in a factory several thousand miles away, but a healthful meal made entirely out of California ingredients: a chicken leg roasted with lemon and oregano, say, or a yakisoba noodle bowl with tofu.
The meals are part of California Thursdays, an initiative of the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy that the Oakland Unified School District has been piloting for the past year. With the catchphrase, "California food for California kids," the program features school lunches made with ingredients that originate in California and are cooked fresh in the district's kitchen facilities.
On October 23, the initiative officially launched statewide. Fifteen school districts, including OUSD, formally adopted California Thursdays. Other districts that have signed on include Elk Grove, Los Angeles, Monterey Peninsula, San Diego, and San Francisco.
For Oakland, the initiative has been an ambitious undertaking, requiring the district to reexamine its not-always-transparent ingredient supply chain, retrain its kitchen staff, and develop healthful, appealing recipes that are practical to make on a large scale (the district serves roughly 20,000 lunches each day). By April, the district had deemed the meals enough of a success to go from serving them once a month to every week. With the help of the Center for Ecoliteracy, OUSD has now developed seven California Thursdays recipes that the schools rotate through, explained food service director Jennifer LeBarre.
In a state as famous for its agricultural bounty as California is, it's easy to assume that sourcing high-quality local ingredients would be easy, but the program's organizers say implementation has been challenging. As the Center for Ecoliteracy's Adam Kesselman put it, "School food is complicated, especially on a scale as big as Oakland."
Indeed, as much as reformers would love for OUSD to buy all of its ingredients from small independent purveyors, for now that remains a distant prospect. For starters, there are daunting budgetary constraints. Alexandra Emmott, the district's Farm to School supervisor, noted that the district can only spend $1.15 on each meal it serves — an amount that needs to cover the cost of an entrée, a fruit or vegetable, and milk. Given those constraints, it's a minor miracle that Oakland schools have been able to start offering Mary's Free Range chicken legs twice a month as part of the initiative.
Even if money were no object, the district is contractually obligated to buy the vast majority of its food from mega-distributor Sysco. Whenever Emmott finds a local mom-and-pop farm that OUSD wants to work with, she has to help the farmers jump through a host of hoops — e.g. to sign them up to be Sysco suppliers so that Sysco can then sell their produce back to the school district.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to school lunch reform in Oakland is the district's facilities limitations. Because only thirty of the district's 85 schools have functioning kitchens, the remaining schools depend on daily deliveries from two central kitchens. LeBarre explained that this adds several extra steps to the process of, say, prepping and cooking raw chicken, which the district has taken on for the first time in more than a decade. According to Kesselman, the current delivery system also makes it more difficult for students to even know about California Thursdays, since the meals come in the same plastic-wrapped paper trays as all of their other school lunches.
For now, the district doesn't have a lot of data with which to quantify the program's success — for instance, it has not collected statistics on how many students are opting for the California-sourced entrées. (In Oakland, the initiative is currently limited to a single entrée each week; students still have other meal options.) And it's much too early to draw any conclusions about the initiative's long-term health impact.
Still, for school lunch reformers, the California Thursdays initiative represents a step in the right direction — especially now that it is expanding its reach across the state. Both Emmott and Kesselman pointed out that there are also clear economic benefits to the program. For example, OUSD now buys approximately $20,000 worth of chicken each month from Mary's, which is based in Sanger, California. "The revenue of that stayed in California," he noted. Other local farms stand to benefit as OUSD and other participating districts start to buy more of their ingredients within the state.
Thanks to a bond measure that passed in 2012, granting the district $44 million for school kitchen upgrades, OUSD will soon have much-improved cooking facilities, too. This summer, four Oakland schools will receive significant kitchen upgrades. Even more crucially, construction will begin on a new central commissary kitchen in West Oakland that should open by the start of the 2017–18 school year.
At that point, the district should move a step closer toward its ultimate goal: to serve healthy meals made with high-quality California ingredients all the time, not just Thursdays.
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