California school district rewrites menu for student lunches

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight:  With the new school year now in full swing, one urban district in California is implementing an ambitious plan to transform their lunch program to provide healthier, locally sourced food.This report comes from Jake Schoneker and his student journalists at Media Enterprise Alliance, part of our Student Reporting Labs network that trains young people in public media journalism.

JAKE SCHONEKER: For many kids in low-income communities, the meals served at their schools are the best chance for them to eat food that will serve them up and keep them healthy.  But, as any high school student will tell you, school food often leaves a lot to be desired.

STUDENT: The pizza looks like you just pulled it out of the freezer and it’s just like — it tastes like cardboard.

STUDENT: I see a lot of my peers eating Cheetos, cookies, soda.  It’s not healthy enough for the students at school.

JAKE SCHONEKER: But here in Oakland, school officials are undertaking an ambitious plan to transform the school lunch menu.  They’re working to source food from local farms, instead of big companies, and provide California food for California kids.

JENNIFER LEBARRE, Director, Oakland Schools Director of Nutrition Services: One of the things that inspired us to do the farm-to-school movement is a class project that Cleveland Elementary School fifth graders did.

On Earth Day, they did the food miles for their particular lunch, and they found out that the asparagus that they served, that we served to them, had traveled 17,000 miles before they ate it.  And so this was a real shocker for me, because asparagus is grown 50 miles from here, maybe 100 at the most.

But what they found out is that the asparagus they ate on Earth Day was grown in South America, flown to China for processing, and then flown back to the Bay Area for us to eventually get it and serve it.  So, that just blew my mind.

JAKE SCHONEKER: On Earth Day this year, they launched a new program that is at the heart of the farm-to-school effort, California Thursday.  The goal of the farm-to-school initiative is to offer fresh locally grown food each week to every student in the Oakland public schools.

ADAM KESSELMAN, Rethinking School Lunch: That’s a big deal, procuring fresh food for 20,000 lunches a day.  That’s a lot of food.

ALEXANDRA EMMOTT, Farm to School Supervisor, Oakland Unified School District Nutrition Services: I just bought 4,600 pounds of chicken from Mary’s chicken in Sanger, California, so this is a really exciting thing for me.  This is the first time we have ever been able to buy local chicken, and this reflects a big procurement change.

JAKE SCHONEKER: In order to provide students with desirable food, the Center for Ecoliteracy was on hand to perform taste tests designed to ensure diversity for future menu choices.

STUDENT: Tasty.  I like how it looks.

JAKE SCHONEKER: After students enjoyed their lunch, Oakland school leaders, interim superintendent Gary Yee and school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, stopped by the school to taste the California Thursday school lunch menu for themselves.

JUMOKE HINTON HODGE, School Board Director, Oakland Unified School District: I’m very excited that Oakland Unified School District has really taken the lead nationally around looking at food lunches, partnering with folks like the Ecoliteracy Center, partnering with families and parents, right, who said like, hey, we want healthier lunches for our young people.  And I think it’s a very bold thing.

JAKE SCHONEKER: The California Thursdays program is only the beginning of the OUSD’s efforts to improve school lunch.  In 2012, Oakland voters approved the construction of a brand-new central kitchen in West Oakland where students will be able to grow their own food and the district will be able to provide fresher meals to every school.

JENNIFER LEBARRE: The central kitchen is going to be so much more than just a kitchen.  We’re planning on having an educational center there that students, community and also our employees will be able to benefit from.  It is also going to have a 1.5-acre district farm that really will be used for an instructional farm for students.

JAKE SCHONEKER: The proposed district farm is said to improve students’ education and also help the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions contributed by industrialized food processing.  In a country where school lunch usually means frozen pizzas wrapped in plastic, Oakland is trying to provide better options for its students, locally grown food that is good for your health and tastes good, too.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.