School Lunch Makeover

School Lunch Makeover

Oakland kitchens get upgrades to put better food into the hands, mouths, and stomachs of students, with other districts following suit.

Oakland kitchens get upgrades to put better food into the hands, mouths, and stomachs of students, with other districts following suit. By Kate Rix

The chief lunch lady for Oakland schools has a vision. Jennifer LeBarre is working to make the food served in the city’s 86 schools healthier, sustainable, and, yes, even tempting.

A typical menu from last year: a nice piece of antibiotic-free chicken cooked in lemon and oregano. Another day there was chorizo sausage with kale. And this is lunch for 21,000 kids at $1.20 a pop.

“We used to use pre-packaged pizza,” says LeBarre. “Now we’re moving to whole grain pizza shells and warming them in each school kitchen. Kids will be able to smell that wonderful sauce, cheese smell wafting through the halls inviting them to lunch.”

The food is changing, and so are the kitchens where it’s cooked. With almost $44 million in public funds from 2012’s Measure J, Oakland public schools are upgrading the kitchens at 30 schools and building a brand-new central kitchen in West Oakland. That’s where the district’s homemade Bolognese sauce will simmer before it gets trucked to schools to be warmed (and to fill cafeterias with the aroma of tomatoes and garlic).

It’ll be another two years before the new central kitchen is complete, but LeBarre’s vision is part of a bigger plan to enrich the food experience in Oakland schools. Her recipe: Serve fresh food, buy local, get rid of the packaging, and turn the cafeteria staff into salespeople for healthier food.

This year, the district and Berkeley’s Center for EcoLiteracy partnered to launch California Thursdays, a new menu of dishes made entirely from fresh ingredients from within 250 miles of Oakland. Gone (on Thursdays at least) are the canned vegetables. In are fresh zucchini and strawberries from Watsonville. Also new on the menu: California turkey and potato shepherd’s pie and soba noodles with bok choy and tofu.

Instead of “carnival food” (corn dogs), kids will be served grass-fed beef hot dogs on whole grain buns baked in California.

The goal is to get healthier food into kids’ bodies and teach them how tasty good food can be in a city where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“We’re elevating the school meal’s role in the educational system,” LeBarre says. “School lunch is viewed as an interruption as opposed to being as crucial as a text book. Many of our students have no grocery stores in their neighborhoods, so the school district needs to make sure we’re giving them the best possible food—and food education.”


California Thursdays went well in 2014, so well, in fact, that 15 other California school districts visited Oakland in August in preparation for start similar projects in their schools this school year.

“These children’s health will improve,” says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for EcoLiteracy. “And when nutritional well-being increases, so do academics. We think we can impact the academic well-being and preparedness of children in Oakland.”

The Center for EcoLiteracy is helping to train food-service workers in the city’s schools to work with the new ingredients—it had been years, for example, since food workers had handled raw chicken—and to serve it with enthusiasm.

It’s important for food servers to know they’re serving good food to children, says LeBarre, so they can make a convincing pitch.

” ‘Ew, tofu!’ That was our employees’ reaction,” she says. “So we talked about the food and the face that goes with it. Are you going to order the special from somebody who says, ‘ew?’ “

So, what are the customers saying?

Feedback on lemon-oregano chicken has been great, says Adam Kesselman, program manager of Rethinking School Lunch at the Center for Eco-Literacy. Kale is a harder sell. It doesn’t hold up as well being packed out to satellite school kitchens. Kids said they wanted less of it in the chorizo kale.

“Eating is a learned skill,” Kesselman said. “We expect kids to turn on a dime and go from pizza to chorizo with pasta and kale. It’s good, but it’s not loaded with salt and fat. How the food tastes is a big component. because we are often giving something to kids they may have never had. The question we ask is, would you get in line for this?”


When LeBarre took on the role of director of nutrition services 15 years ago, she inherited an outdated approach to feeding schoolchildren. About 30 of Oakland’s schools have their own kitchens, but most can only warm packaged food. Food is prepared in two main kitchens, at Prescott Elementary in West Oakland and at Oakland High School. Those kitchens were never intended to serve 20,000 children, and all food has to be covered in cellophane before it is delivered to individual schools.

In addition, nearly all of the smaller school kitchens need to be upgraded, even to function well as warming kitchens. With small, funky kitchens, the district has begun to transform its food service—even sourcing ingredients from small, organic farms.

“We have gone as far as we can with the facilities we have,” says LeBarre.

The old system made it easy for the district to monitor nutrient standards: When everything is cooked in just two kitchens, the fat, calorie, protein, and fiber are simpler to control.

The new system doesn’t sacrifice oversight. The central kitchen is planned for the old Marcus Foster Middle School site in West Oakland with an adjacent 1.5-acre demonstration garden. The difference will come in when the food is delivered to modernized school kitchens where the sauce will warm up in big pots and chicken in ovens. No more cellophane-wrapped paper trays.

“Packaging can be good food’s worst enemy,” LeBarre says. “You can’t smell the food.”

LeBarre knows her vision will work—because it already works. Montclair Elementary already upgraded its kitchen as part of a building modernization and it has implemented the new open-pot warming system. The school served about 40 students lunch every day before making the switch. Afterward, between 250 and 300 kids lined up for school lunch.


But as any parent knows, it’s not easy to provide healthy, organic food to kids everyday. For one thing, it’s expensive.

“It’s a challenge,” says Alexandra Emmott, farm to school supervisor for the Oakland Unified School District. “We have to work within a very tight budget.”

Under the National School Lunch Program, the federal government reimburses school districts for food they serve, as long as the meals meet federal requirements. The reimbursement for an entrée is 60 cents per child. For fruit and vegetables, 20 to 30 cents.

It takes a lot of flexibility and creativity to work within those parameters.

For example, 5,000 pounds of raw antibiotic-free chicken was half the price of cooked chicken. After that, it was a matter of training staff to work with raw meat.

But most parents don’t have to count ounces of vegetables to meet their budget requirements. To be reimbursed, the district has to make sure each meal includes one-half cup of fruits and vegetables. If one-fourth cup is in the entrée, it doesn’t count. This is a crazy accounting issue that has to do with how detailed cafeteria staff can be when they calculate the portions.

“The staff have to know that if a kid chooses a quesadilla, they need one-half cup of veggies somewhere else, while the kid who chooses stir-fry is already getting one-fourth cup in their entrée,” Emmott says.

Meeting federal requirements is a puzzle, but when a district the size of OUSD shops for organic, local grains, protein and produce, it throws its muscle behind a growing demand for quality school food.

“The implications of procurement shifts are very large,” says Kesselman. “They reach beyond Oakland. How do we get antibiotic-free chicken into schools? If you can do it, you drive demand.”

California Thursdays will expand statewide this school year. That’s 173 million lemon-oregano chicken meals every day.

“Demand drives innovation,” Kesselman adds. “Oakland is a laboratory to see what materials and strategies are required to change the school lunch system for the better” l

Kate Rix, a former co-editor of The Monthly, is a freelance writer based in Oakland.

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