Rethinking School Lunch: An Interview with Zenobia Barlow and Michael Stone of the Center for Ecoliteracy
In late June, the Oakland Unified School District's board unanimously adopted a resolution to pursue a bond measure in November to provide funding for projects in the district's Facilities Master Plan. The Master Plan incorporates food service facilities recommendations from the Rethinking School Lunch Oakland Feasibility Study, conducted by a team of researchers commissioned by the Center for Ecoliteracy. The study – a comprehensive review of the district's Nutrition Services program – was funded by the TomKat Charitable Trust with the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. Its recommendations articulate a roadmap for realizing the vision of Oakland's Nutrition Services Director, Jennifer LeBarre, to improve the quality of school meals and the student eating experience and solidify the role of school district as a resource for the Oakland community.
We had the chance to speak with Zenobia Barlow and Michael Stone of the Center for Ecoliteracy to learn more about their research and recommendations. Our interview is below.
Stacey Slate (ESYP): I'm interested in understanding whom you have been working with in order to start to change food policy in the Oakland Unified School District.
Zenobia Barlow: We looked for a school district that demonstrated the readiness that you need in order to take on something as significant as changing an entire school food system that serves seven million meals a year – that's 38,000 kids, with 70 percent of them eligible for free or reduced meals, and for many kids that is five meals a day.
We wanted to make sure we had the complete commitment from the superintendent, the food service director, and the cabinet of the district, so that this investment in a collaboration would realize the greatest returns. Oakland is gifted with remarkable leadership, and the district recently approved a strategic plan that makes a commitment to community schools and recognizes that a child's whole well-being – physical, emotional, and social – is critical to academic achievement. So school food is integral to their overall goals. Oakland has had great visionary policy; from their point of view what they needed was help in realizing that vision.
Stacey: So how did identifying 10 areas or dimensions of focus come about in terms of understanding and identifying those district needs and how is that focus going to be executed?
Zenobia: I think what you're describing is the Rethinking School Lunch planning framework which is articulated in the Rethinking School Lunch Guide on our website. We began working on school food back in the mid-1990s. The first USDA community food security competitive grants came out in 1997. Tom Bates, who had completed 22 years in the State Assembly (and is now mayor of Berkeley), the superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District, and I applied for a grant for what we called the Food Systems Project. We received the largest grant they had given to date, for a project from 1998 through 2001. We committed to establishing a garden with a garden coordinator in every school and a kitchen classroom with a kitchen coordinator or teacher in every elementary school, and introduced salad bars in every elementary school in the district. We were also a funder at the time, funding school districts all around Northern California, and we convened a Food Service Directors' Roundtable.
Anybody who works on improving school food very soon discovers the complexity of the assignment. Out of several years' worth of intensive work we began to articulate the 10 different pathways described in Rethinking School Lunch. Part of our discovery was that you could start anywhere – with policy or facilities or changing the menus – but it would very soon lead you to questions like What's your procurement process? How are you going to train your staff to have the new skills they'll need to cook from scratch? What's the dining experience? (You can make beautiful food but the facility may be too loud or chaotic or messy for children to really enjoy their meals.) Out of rolling around in the dust of the complexity of all of this, we created the Rethinking School Lunch Guide, received funding from the California Endowment, and published it on our website. School food is a very regulated and a vast bureaucracy. But the good news is that if you can come up with an innovation anywhere, it may migrate and be relevant everywhere, and we wanted to share a simpler, inviting way of thinking of the complexity.
We also have a new asset which we'll publish in the coming months. It is a rubric for assessing a school district through these different pathways to determine where the district is doing well and where it needs some improvement. That leads us back to the conversation about Oakland. Oakland is a really innovative place and Jennifer LeBarre, the Nutrition Services director, is a really innovative school food leader. Her assessment was that she had a policy in place and had made innovations in many arenas, but the challenge was that her facilities were inadequate and antiquated. She needed help assessing solutions and focusing on the financial implications, to see if her vision of a green central commissary kitchen with an adjacent 1.5-acre farm was financially viable. So we set out to help her evaluate as objectively as possible whether the vision could be realized, and, if so, how long it would take and what it would cost.
Stacey: And that actually leads me to my next question which is: After determining that strategy for implementing your findings, how does a study like this one remain a sustainable part of the food system going forward?
Zenobia: This is why it is so important to work with the district as a whole, and to be engaged closely with the superintendent and his cabinet, because these are very big decisions and have a lot of zeros attached to them. We worked with the superintendent for business, the assistant superintendent for facilities, the food service director and the board of education. Part of why it has been promising and satisfying to work with Oakland is that the timing has been so ideal. The Feasibility Study took 14 to 18 months to complete, and we presented it to the governing board in January. At the same time, the district's Facilities Master Plan was being crafted. The specificity of our recommendations, with all of the financial analyses, allowed the district to incorporate the Feasibility Study recommendations directly into the Facilities Master Plan. Then it went out to public review. I attended three of the six community meetings, and people responded very positively to the nutrition services section. The governing board unanimously approved the Facilities Master Plan, and recently adopted a resolution to pursue a bond measure in November to contribute to funding it. Just between January and June, we have already seen many of the most significant recommendations implemented.
Stacey: And so with the bond measure, is that measure itself the channel for funding the entire Feasibility Study?
Michael Stone: The bond measure will address the facilities part of it, which is the biggest piece of the recommendation – to create a new central kitchen and farm, establish school-community kitchens at 14 sites, and upgrade the remaining kitchens.
Zenobia: This bond measure would be for 475 million dollars. Oakland Unified School District has articulated 1.5 billion dollars in facility-related needs. Though 475 million dollars is a lot of money, it is still not 100 percent of what the district needs to modernize and maintain, in terms of seismic integrity, the hundred-plus buildings throughout the school district. The Nutrition Services portion of the total is relatively modest, but it will respond to what was perceived as the most significant obstacle to realizing this new vision of school food service in Oakland.
Stacey: The last question that I have is about the financial cost of implementing this new recommendation. What does the current cost for cafeteria food look like in Oakland and what will the change be with the new recommendation?
Michael: There are a couple pieces of this question. One of them is the transition that the Feasibility Study will cover. We have recommendations for the next 10 years. The estimate for the first five years of implementing the Feasibility Study, other than facilities, is about 950,000 dollars – an average about 200,000 dollars a year, in a budget of over 16 million dollars. Some of that would be one-time costs, for instance to implement a new system for procuring food – creating the documentation and a computerized system to enable vendors to provide better food to the district in a more economical way. Some would be for improving waste management, some for better integrating nutrition education into the curriculum, and so on.
Some of the costs are for professional development for food services staff. Another piece is marketing and communications. One of the realizations which came out of the work we have done with Rethinking School Lunch is that if you just change the school food, that does not change anything unless the students are prepared to eat it. What do you do to make the food program more attractive? By improving the food itself, but also by changing the dining experience, communicating to students and their parents about improvements, and so on.
The other costs are ongoing, once the new facilities are in place, perhaps in the fourth or fifth year. We estimate about one million dollars a year in additional expenses, primarily for staffing. The Feasibility Study shows that in 65 of the 90 kitchens now in the district, they are not cooking – they are just reheating preprepared food. Once you go to actually cooking, you are going to need to increase the staffing for those kitchens. Part of the added expenses will be compensated for by increasing efficiency. Additionally, we hope that the new facilities will enable the district to become a provider of meals for other agencies in the city and county, for other charter schools, perhaps even other school districts. As the school food improves, and as word of that goes out to students and parents, we predict that the number of students who are not receiving subsidies and who are paying full price for the meals will substantially increase and that that will also increase the income for the district.
Zenobia: May I comment about the school-community kitchens aspect? We are looking at various ways to implement this notion of having the kitchens moonlight as community resources when they are not being used for school meals. This points back to the school district's strategic plan and its desire to understand the schools as community schools and community resources. The school-community kitchen idea is one way to help the district realize the vision of making the schools a much more accessible resource in neighborhoods.