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Healthier Meals Await Oakland Students Returning to School

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Healthier Meals Await Oakland Students Returning to School

Picture of Viji Sundaram

New America Media's Viji Sundaram examines a "food revolution" in Oakland's public schools. Will it live up to the hype?

New America Media
Thursday, August 23, 2012

BERKELEY, Calif. – Jennifer Le Barre, Oakland Unified School District’s nutrition services director, vows that students in Oakland’s public school will know what a fresh peach is when they pick it up.

Le Barre was speaking at a news briefing here August 16 on what some are calling a food revolution in Oakland’s public schools. She might have been exaggerating just a tad about how many students know what fresh fruit looks like, but she was dead serious about her commitment to ensure that their taste buds get acquainted with that and other nutritious produce.

Already, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), which currently serves 7 million school meals each year, has been changing the food landscape in a number of its school cafeterias to check the epidemic of obesity among school kids. School menus feature Meatless Mondays, offering pasta primavera, vegetable stir-fry and bean and cheese burritos as an alternative. Salad bars are fast becoming a fixture on the menus. French fries no longer have a place.

“We know that real children need real food to learn and grow,” observed Zenobia Barlow, executive director at the Center for Ecoliteracy, at the briefing jointly sponsored by her agency and The California Endowment. The Endowment's “Health Happens in Schools” project, launched last year, is geared towards promoting healthful school meals in all of California’s 9,800 public schools.

Studies have found that low quality nutrition during childhood can impair the development of such cognitive capabilities as learning and problem solving. Not only that, malnourished children can develop an array of chronic illnesses that last well into adulthood.

“Children born in [the affluent] Oakland Hills live 15 years longer than those born in West Oakland,” observed LeBarre, citing an Alameda County-sponsored study done last year.

Le Barre has been playing a key role in creating nutritious meals for Oakland’s public school children, and on a limited budget. The Endowment honored her and five other people from across the state for their pioneering work in making healthy school meals that kids want to eat. Thanks to her innovative approach, 67 public schools in Oakland currently have salad bars. OUSD’s “ultimate goal” is to have a salad bar in every one of its 86 schools, she said.

National School Lunch Program

School lunch funding in districts where many of the children are from low-income households is provided largely by the federally funded National School Lunch Program, which is open to all students from K-12. To qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a student’s family income must fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,348 for a family of four in 2011.Nearly every county in California saw an increase in the number of eligible students from the 2007-’08 to 2009-’10 school years, according to, an online resource about the health of children.

In Oakland, 68 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the Center for Ecoliteracy.

New government nutrition standards for school meals rolled out on July 1, raising the bar for the first time in more than 15 years. To qualify for federal meal reimbursements, school must meet the standards set out by the United States Department of Agriculture under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that was championed by First Lady Michele Obama. The new program increases the federal reimbursement by 6 cents per lunch to a total of $2.81, with the state chipping in an additional 22 cents.

School officials are aware that school lunches not only have to be more nutritious, they have to be tasty, as well. A child will gravitate toward a chicken nugget more readily than toward a bowl of sautéed tofu. This means, they will have to reset the taste buds of the children gradually.

At the Oakland-based Esperanza/Korematsu Elementary School, veteran chef Sylvia Fong seems confident she has achieved that. Fong has developed a lunch menu that has eliminated almost 80 percent of pre-packaged food from the choices. Aside from serving “colorful salads,” brown rice has replaced the customary white rice, she said proudly.

Measure J

The OUSD is hoping that Oakland voters will approve Measure J, a parcel tax initiative on the November ballot. Money from increased property taxes will allow Oakland to have a new school-community kitchen to support both the health of students, as well as the general public, Barlow said.

The kitchen will be used to prepare school meals during the day, while small businesses or other community groups could rent it to prepare food for their events outside of school hours. The kitchen will also come in handy during times of emergencies caused by natural disasters, said Le Barre.

Although some other school districts have programs to make their school lunches more nutritious, “what happens in Oakland and San Francisco sends a wave to the rest of the nation,” noted Jason A. Harvey, founder and executive director of a food justice network called Oakland Food Connection (OFC).

Harvey, 34, a native of East Oakland, said he attended a charter school in Oakland where school officials would “scramble” a couple of hours before lunch to order pizza or some other food item with little nutrition for the students.

He said his OFC seven-year-old network has trained hundreds of youth to help schools set up and maintain their own vegetable gardens, a first step in promoting healthy eating habits among children. As of now, four schools in East Oakland have developed their own gardens. Grassroots movements such as his could not only prevent diseases like obesity and diabetes they could also build leadership among youth, Harvey pointed out.

Sean Shavers, a recent high school graduate of Oakland, observed that from his own experience, school lunches that taste like “home-cooked meals” trump foods wrapped in plastic and offerings from vending machines.

The Aug. 16 briefing was organized by New America Media. It featured a nutritious Thai lunch and drew an overflow crowd of 14 ethnic and mainstream media practitioners, nutrition advocates and students from NAM’s youth-led media hubs in Richmond, Oakland and San Jose.

It was the first of seven such briefings NAM will be holding in the coming weeks.

Photo credit: USDA via Flickr