Oakland Unified School District Serving More California-Grown Food

The whole thing started with a simple question: How far does our food travel?

For Earth Day a few years ago, a group of fifth grade students at Cleveland Elementary School in Oakland took it upon themselves to find out. They followed the path that the asparagus in the cafeteria took to get there, finding it was grown in South America and processed in China before ultimately making its way into their school's kitchen. The total length of the journey? 17,000 miles. That's especially troubling when asparagus is grown less than 200 miles from the school.

It was a problem, and needed a solution.

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To find one, the Oakland Unified School District turned to the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, or CAFF. In collaboration with UC Davis and with funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, they developed a program that looked at not only how to get schools to source locally, but also how to change the way students work with food. As you'd expect, this wasn't an entirely easy process.

One of the first things they changed was how they decide where to buy food, giving extra points not only to farms that were in closer proximity to the district, but also those that were under 500 acres in size, were family run, and grew sustainably and/or organically.

"Grimmway Farms in the Central Valley processes 80% of the country's fresh carrot market," says Ariane Michas, the Regional Food Systems Manager at CAFF. "So for Oakland Unified to be getting carrots from Grimmway, that doesn't make a big impression in terms of food system change."

They also had to make sure that they were buying items the kids would actually eat, so they developed the Harvest of the Month program to simultaneously introduce children to new produce while also serving as a taste test to see what would fly in the cafeteria. "There really has to be buy-in," says Michas. "[Oakland] is serving a population of 40,000 students, and for many the meal program is the primary source of nutrition and healthy calories. But they have to serve things that will appeal to these kids so they really eat the food."

All of that hard work paid off with the implementation of California Thursdays. Once a week, the district provides an entire meal sourced from California growers. For instance, "Mary's Chicken, raised in Sanger; sugar snap peas from Tomahawk Farms in Santa Maria; organic strawberries from the Alba Growers' Cooperative in Salinas; and brown rice from Sunwest Foods in Sacramento Valley."

But the project doesn't end there. In addition to California Thursdays, CAFF has launched the California Farm to School Network, a place for schools in the state to assist one another and trade ideas on how to improve their school lunches. It's a place where schools can learn how to write the aforementioned bid language or where to find funding opportunities that are out there on a local and national level. "We're still working out the kinks and growing the program," says Michas, "but the idea is that it will hopefully have a ripple effect around other districts around the state."

The question is, can what's happening in Oakland be replicated elsewhere?

"One of the major barriers is equipment," says Michas. With decreased funding, schools no longer have access to quality cooking equipment within the schools, a big deal if their goal is to cook a large amount of fresh food -- raw chicken, for instance -- to serve. "It can be a slow process to overcome those barriers. It really takes logistical and technical fixes." And Oakland is in a unique place because of 2012's Measure J, a ballot initiative that earmarked funds to redo Oakland Unified's central kitchen, create a number of satellite kitchens, and build a one-and-a-half acre urban farm to help educate students about farming.

But Oakland's also not that all unique when compared to other cities in the state. While other districts in other states around the country may not have the same ability to guarantee local offerings year-round, the districts in California have the benefit of a 12-month growing season and a $45 billion agriculture business. Meaning that perhaps others will see what's happening in Oakland will push their own district in that direction.

"Oakland really is on the forefront," says Michas. "But there's no reason it can't happen anywhere else in California."

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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