With its farmers markets at 17 schools, fresh produce dished up in 36,800 meals a day, and programs like “California Thursdays,” where it serves only food grown in state, Oakland Unified School District has become a pioneer in bringing healthy food to the school cafeteria, according to an award it received this week.
That’s the judgment of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which awarded OUSD and its Nutrition Services Executive Director Jennifer LeBarre with its “School Food Innovation Award” on Thursday. Five other school districts received the award as well. There are nearly 1,000 school districts in the state.
“The District has made a number of innovative improvements in school food over the years,” said Lisa Bennett of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Preparing its own meals, sourcing locally, banning harmful foods and bringing farmers markets right to kids’ schools and neighborhoods are among them, the Center said. The most recent innovation was its California Thursdays.
A school nutrition turnaround began at OUSD around 2010, when then-Superintendent Tony Smith made nutrition at school part of his Full Service Community Schools program.
The District has banned soda, trans fats, high sodium foods and most processed white flours from its school menus. It makes a lot of the meals itself and works with teachers to include lessons about growing and eating healthy food.
With 70 percent of OUSD students in the Federal Free or Reduced Lunch program, the food served at schools can make a big difference on what happens in the classroom. What a students eats can have a big impact on that individual student’s ability to learn, according to LeBarre.
“When you think about it, if you don’t have a good breakfast before an important meeting, you don’t perform as well. The same for kids: if they go to school without breakfast, they can’t concentrate as well,” LeBarre said. Another result of regularly skipping meals or eating unhealthy foods is that kids develop health problems. Obesity is linked to drinking sugary beverages. Heart problems and diabetes in adults are often linked to lifetime habits of eating fat, sodium and sugar.
For a sizable number of kids, OUSD found, the meal they get at school is the only one with vegetables; sometimes it’s the only full meal they get in a day. Teachers and principals were noticing that kids were coming to school without any breakfast or with having only eaten snacks, so OUSD began serving breakfast every day.
“Students were coming to school having eaten Flaming Hot Cheetos and soda for breakfast,” and then experiencing physical problems such as headaches or sugar highs, LeBarre said.
The Center for Ecoliteracy was joined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Endowment in awarding school nutrition innovators Thursday. The awards were granted at a ceremony in Palm Springs, where school district chefs got together to share ideas, cook meals and talk nutrition, LeBarre said. They made meals from the “California Food for California Kids” cookbook put together by the Center for Ecoliteracy.