Oakland’s Farm Fresh Approach to School Food

By Sarah Henry

Move over Berkeley, another East Bay school district is gaining ground on the school food revolution front.

The Berkeley Unified School District’s School Lunch Initiative frequently and fairly garners kudos as a model for school eats and education around the country (see sidebar near end of this article). But in the past couple of years, public schools in Oakland have been rolling out their own innovative program to ensure that students and their families have access to healthy food. In the process, they may well be creating a model for other school districts across the nation.

Oakland Fresh School Produce Markets is a partnership between the Nutrition Services Department of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the nonprofit East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC). The program offers families direct access to quality produce from six local farmers and other distributors at 12 elementary schools in communities where nutritious food is otherwise hard to come by.

Once a week during the school year, as the end-of-day bell rings, parents and their children can shop for fresh, local fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, honey, grains, beans, and other whole foods sold at affordable prices; EBT food stamps are accepted. The program is scheduled to open at 13 more elementary schools at the start of the next academic year, when it will expand into a full-fledged farm-to-school program under the umbrella of the OUSD Nutrition Services Department.

Participating farms include Catalan Family Farm in Hollister (tomatillos, cabbage, squash, broccoli, chard, carrots, garlic, and lettuce), Queen of Sheeba Farms (honey), and the EBAYC-incubated Iu-Mien Village Farms (strawberries, beans, tomatoes, squash). Farmers deliver on Mondays and Tuesdays to an OUSD warehouse on High Street. With the help of volunteers, EBAYC staffer Christine Cherdboonmuang—who is also the Oakland Fresh coordinator—sorts and weighs the produce for distribution to the different school markets, which run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“This program is critical because it increases access to fresh, nutritious, and affordable food for Oakland students and their families, many of whom live in food deserts where such food is in short supply, if available at all,” says OUSD nutrition services director Jennifer LeBarre. “The markets also promote a healthy school environment for students and their families. It’s a win-win situation.”

The stands are staffed by adult volunteers (some 150 parents and community members have helped run them) and are open to students, parents, and staff, as well as local residents. Each school market sells about $150 to $600 of fresh produce per week. During its first year of operation, Oakland Fresh distributed 2,000 pounds of food per week and grossed more than $100,000 in sales.

The project’s roots date back more than six years. The markets grew out of a 2005 community food assessment and survey conducted by EBAYC in the underserved San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland. The survey revealed that many residents—around 40 percent—were forced to travel outside the area to find healthy food; 84 percent surveyed agreed that they’d buy more fruits and vegetables and less processed or junk food if the price were right.

Clearly, access to affordable, nutritious chow is a challenge in low-income areas, but how to address the problem?

“Schools are such a natural place to put farmstands because children and their parents are there every day,” says Cherdboonmuang, who initially approached farmers she knew from her work with the Ecology Center’s program Farm Fresh Choice, which distributes produce to financially struggling Berkeley residents. “It’s really rewarding to see how excited the kids are about the produce market after school. It’s a true community-building exercise and we’re doing it through food.”

No one doubts the need. Although Northern California is blessed with an abundance of agriculture, many Oakland residents struggle to gain access to this bounty. More than 20 percent of Oakland families have incomes below the federal poverty line, and the percentage is even higher in the city’s flatlands—neighborhoods like West Oakland, San Antonio, Fruitvale, and East Oakland. Close to 70 percent of children in the OUSD qualify for the Federal Free or Reduced Price Meal program (compared with about 41 percent in the Berkeley school district).

Many of these families live in so-called food deserts, meaning there’s no nearby supermarket or grocery store where they can buy fresh food. Instead, these communities are riddled with liquor stores, dollar shops, and fast-food outlets that offer little, if anything, in the way of good grub. It’s not surprising then, to learn that more than one-third of OUSD students are overweight, according to data from the California Department of Education, with that percentage climbing steadily as students get older. In addition, half of local families surveyed by the department have household members with diabetes, obesity, or high blood pressure, according to a report by The California Endowment.

The produce stand project hopes to make a difference in those disturbing statistics, one bunch of chard or bag of oranges at a time. The pilot program got off the ground in the spring of 2006 with two elementary schools, Garfield and Franklin. All Oakland public schools reflect the diversity of the community; Franklin on Foothill Boulevard includes a significant Asian contingent, while Garfield, located on the border of the San Antonio and Fruitvale districts, has a large Latino population. A lot of the families in the district, including recent immigrants, have a connection to growing food and cooking at home, so the markets resonate with their background and childhood food memories, says Cherdboonmuang.

The program, funded with support from The California Endowment, started with just two markets, since organizers realized they needed to figure out startup kinks and prove that the stands could attract customers, serve as a positive activity in host schools, and be self-supporting—a key goal.

After the success of the pilot program, other Oakland schools started to request produce stands on site. Additional funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, ConAgra Foods Foundation, and the United States Department of Agriculture allowed the project to scale up for the 2009–2010 school year.

The stands don’t just sell healthy raw ingredients. A variety of nutrition education activities reinforce the good food message. Through its Cookin’ the Market project, staffers from the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association (PCFMA) run cooking demonstrations, offer tastings, and hand out recipes for simple dishes using seasonal fare about once a month at participating schools. “We demo basic recipes using just a few fresh ingredients,” says Cookin’ coordinator Sim Peyron. “You want to show people how to make something healthy that is easy to prepare, uses everyday techniques, and everyone can enjoy.” Along with chef Mario Hernandez, Peyron served a winter squash soup to eager students and their families late last year at a market on the grounds of New Highland Academy and Rise Community (two elementary schools on one site), where a steady line formed for tastings at the end of the school day.

Students can purchase or earn buyer cards (value: 50 cents) as part of a classroom incentive program. The cards read: “I am making a responsible choice with my money by buying nutritious and delicious fruits and vegetables. Yum!!” Children present their cards for a handful of strawberries, an apple, or, in the case of one child on a recent market day, a turnip. I kid you not.

Teachers are given market-to-classroom lesson plans to teach standards-based lessons in math, science, and language arts, incorporating produce from the market. Unlike Berkeley, Oakland doesn’t have a formal cooking and gardening program incorporated into the school day; individual schools offer these activities to varying degrees in after-school programs. OUSD’s LeBarre points out another big benefit of the markets: They have allowed the school district to work with farmers to increase the amount of locally grown produce in school cafeteria food.

While the markets mostly carry the same seasonal fare, there is some variation that takes into account the varying cultural demographics at the schools. For example, Franklin’s stand sells lemongrass, bok choy, and other Asian greens, while markets catering to more Mexican families stock nopales (cactus pads). One compromise that LeBarre says she can live with is iceberg lettuce. That salad green, with its minimal nutritional value, is popular with many farmers market shoppers, some of whom also expect year-round tomatoes, tomatillos, and hot peppers.

There are other challenges. At a soup tasting last November a parent wrinkled her nose at the proffered sample and asked her child: “Is it nasty?” But program participants say such sentiment is tapering off as both children and adults taste more dishes or sample unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

There can also be competition, quite literally, right outside school grounds. On a day I stopped by New Highland Academy and Rise Community schools, a Latino street cart selling fried chips was doing a roaring trade. Some students toted bags of chips while they sampled soup and picked produce.

In a time of limited resources, allocating drivers to ferry the fruits and vegetables to school on time can be tricky. With the program scheduled to double in size next school year, more drivers will be needed, and  a new truck will be needed as well.

Another real and unpredictable challenge: when a lockdown situation occurs on school grounds, due to violence on or near campus, the farmstands aren’t able to operate.

And for perspective, the produce stands serve only a fraction of Oakland’s schools, albeit some of the neediest in the bunch. There are 109 K–12 schools in the district, including 65 elementary schools, 20 middle schools, and 24 high schools. (It’s worth noting that Berkeley’s school system, which brought about big change in school lunch (see sidebar), is much smaller, with just 11 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 2 high schools.)

A couple of public schools in Oakland’s more affluent neighborhoods have set up their own PTA-sponsored farmstands outside of the Oakland Fresh project. Peralta Elementary has a weekly market and Glenview Elementary has a monthly produce stand. What these schools have in common with schools in the Oakland Fresh program is buy-in from the school’s principal, staff, and parent volunteers, who manage the markets, and deal with logistics, like setting up and breaking down the produce stands, stocking tables, and making sales. A school liaison representative, usually a teacher at each school, is responsible for promoting the program within the school community.

On a day when I visited the stands, I found Huong Huynh, a parent who manages Franklin’s market, busy setting up produce with three friends, who also have children at the school. Three languages are spoken among the women, who laugh and smile while they fill baskets with fresh greens. New Highland Academy and Rise Community schools market manager Rosa Ramos has an easy rapport with students who approach her to buy a snack on their way home from school. She quizzes them about how much change they should get and helps them select fruit. Ramos’s reason for running the stand is simple and heartfelt: “I want all the kids in this community—not just my children—to have an opportunity to choose healthy foods over junk foods.”

The markets appear to be making inroads in the good food fight. In a survey last year, 99 percent of parents who shopped at an OUSD produce stand reported that they were eating more fruits and veggies since the markets started, and 91 percent reported that their children asked them to buy produce at the market.

These numbers make the hard work worthwhile for Cherdboonmuang. She hopes Oakland Fresh, whose operation will transition from EBAYC’s hands to the OUSD once the school district brings on a Farm-to-School Network coordinator for the 2011-2012 school year, will serve as a model for other communities wanting to find an economically viable way to serve under-resourced areas, offering fresh food for minimal startups costs, and caring for their own communities in the process.  (The goal is for the project to be self-supporting by the time EBAYC’s involvement ends.)

She stresses that in order for such a program to work, a team approach is key. “There’s a lot of sheer physical labor involved: picking up produce, setting up stands, hauling boxes,” she explains. “You can’t do it alone.” Given the popularity of the program, it sounds like that won’t be a problem.

Sarah Henry is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers the food beat for KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside, and San Francisco magazine. She has written about school food for the Atlantic Food Channel, Civil Eats, and on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale.

For More Information:

Oakland Unified School District Nutrition Services Department: https://publicportal.ousd.k12.ca.us/19941081118021697/blank/browse.asp?A=383&BMDRN=2000&BCOB=0&C=57661

East Bay Asian Youth Center: www.ebayc.org

Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association: www.pcfma.com

Cookin’ the Market recipes: www.pcfma.com/cookin_recipes.php

Ecology Center’s Farm Fresh Choice: www.ecologycenter.org/ffc

California Farm-to-School: www.cafarmtoschool.org

Berkeley School Lunch Initiative:  www.schoollunchinitiative.org

Berkeley’s Lunch Program Hits the Small Screen

The Berkeley Unified School District’s school lunch makeover, considered a stellar example for other public schools struggling to bring fresh, healthy, made-from-scratch food into their cafeterias and classrooms, is getting its movie moment.

Lunch Love Community is a series of short online video clips called webisodes inspired by a New Yorker story on the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Ann Cooper, who overhauled Berkeley’s central kitchen and school food menu, with a little help from school food advocate Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation.

What documentarians Helen De Michiel and Sophie Constantinou quickly discovered, though, after spending time in Berkeley schools and steeping themselves in the history of the school food reform movement there, is that it takes a village—not just a couple of school food rock stars—to fix the problem.

The San Francisco–based filmmakers wanted to find a way to get their footage out quickly and widely in light of all the attention on school food and the recent passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. They also thought, frankly, that a digital distribution approach might help free up hard-to-come-by funding for a pending one-hour documentary on the same subject.

Six webisodes launched in late November and six more are scheduled to come online at www.lunchlovecommunity.org. The mini-movies, each three to five minutes long, profile parents, teachers, cafeteria staff, and students. They will be shown February 13 at 2 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley (www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/film/FN18932).                                                   —SH

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