Campus research team to analyze Oakland Unified School District’s nutritional system

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Amanda Hart/File

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The Berkeley Food Institute recently awarded a $50,000 research grant to a campus research team to analyze the Oakland Unified School District’s new nutritional system.

The team will focus on the gradual implementation of OUSD’s “Rethinking School Lunch Oakland” program, a byproduct of a partnership between the Center of Ecoliteracy and the school district that aims to provide local and fresh food to thousands of children in Oakland, according to Malo Hutson, a campus assistant professor and member of the team.

Healthy meals are particularly important in OUSD, where 73.4 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to Moira O’Neill, a city and regional planning campus lecturer and contributor to the case study.

“Right now, students are getting packaged foods,” said Joyce Peters, a dietician for OUSD. “Even though we cook our own food, it doesn’t look that way. It’s not a good way to teach about eating right when you can’t smell, feel or even figure out what’s in the package.”

The district’s new nutrition system will have an off-site central kitchen — expected to be ready to use for the 2017-18 academic school year — that will house an instructional farm, training kitchens for staff and students and an education center with a cooking classroom, said Zenobia Barlow, executive director and co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

The facility will also prepare fresh food in bulk that will be sent to school kitchens in the district to prepare on-site meals, Barlow added.

“The case study will document how this huge undertaking began and unfolded,” O’Neill said. “How does an urban school system revamp its meal system?”

In 2010, the Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a yearlong feasibility study of the district’s facilities, in the hopes of creating a roadmap to reforming the schools’ nutrition services. Peters noted that although many parents were unhappy with the meals being offered to students, the schools lacked the resources or facilities to change.

“We have pretty inadequate central kitchens that were designed to be school cafeterias,” Peters said. “Because of the current infrastructure, there’s only so much you can do to change the food.”

The study will also consider the long-term effects and career pathways for students as a result of the new nutrition system.

“How might this change the way that young people relate to food?” Hutson asked. “From an equity perspective, what are the opportunities for people to actually become entrepreneurs in the food industry?”

The case study will address issues of food justice and health equity, and it seeks to become a reliable source of information for other school systems that plan on instituting change in their nutrition systems.

“The challenge is not just telling the story but how you get other school districts (to see) the value in changing the food systems for young children,” Hutson said. “That’s really how we’re going to address this issue.”

Contact Sofia Gonzalez-Platas at sgonzalezplatas[email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sgonzalezplatas.