Rethinking Oakland's School Food Program

by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
April 10, 2012
Image credit: Flickr user momentsinphoto

Meals cooked from scratch. At least a quarter of the ingredients locally sourced. Fresh produce from the 1.5-acre farm adjacent to the new central kitchen. These are just a few of the goals in a new vision for Oakland’s school food program detailed in a recently released report. 

The feasibility study, published by the non-profit Center for Ecoliteracy with the collaboration of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), looked at how Oakland’s school food program could be reformed to better serve the district’s goal of supporting the health and academic success of its students. The report found that the current infrastructure for the school meals program is stretched beyond its intended capacity and doesn’t have the space to efficiently produce high-quality, fresh-made food that can be distributed to the district’s 89 schools.  

OUSD today serves nearly 30,000 meals a day to it students. With 70 percent of those students qualifying for free and reduced-priced meals, the bulk of the revenue that pays for the program's food, labor and overhead comes from federal and state reimbursements, which total less than $3.50 per meal. Despite the fiscal constraints, OUSD has a goal of improving the food it serves its students by overhauling its kitchen facilities and operations.

Specifically, the feasibility study recommends that OUSD dedicate $27 million for capital upgrades including:

  • Redeveloping an existing OUSD property into a 44,000-square-foot commissary that would cook food for schools throughout the district
  • Remodeling and upgrade nearly every school’s kitchen to either include the capacity for on-site cooking or reheating of meals from the central kitchen
  • Creating a 1.5-acre farm adjacent to the new commissary that would provide ingredients for the meals

In addition to OUSD’s capital needs, the report also recommends increasing the school meal program’s operating budget by an average of $200,000 for the first five years and a long-term increase of 3.5 percent in staffing costs once all the new kitchens are opearational. To fund the capital changes, the report recommends that the district pursue local bond funding or parcel taxes, state and federal grants, philanthropic funding, and traditional bank loans. Funding to cover the increased operating costs for staff and overhead are projected to come from increased numbers of students opting for school meals, as well as greater program efficiency.

The report presents an ambitious vision — relevant not just to Oakland, but also to San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). The two school districts serve a similar number of meals per day and both have a similar number of students who qualify for free or reduced meals (more than 60 percent). Though the two districts have substantial differences — San Francisco no longer prepares meals from scratch in its school kitchens, for example — Oakland’s study offers one option for how a Bay Area school district could reform its school meals program. Other options the Oakland report did not explore include improving school meals by using an outside contractor or cooking from scratch in every school.

Whether Oakland embraces the recommendations or another path is to be seen, but the report offers a place to begin a conversation on both sides of the Bay.

Read the Rethinking School Lunch report >>