It’s the day before the winter holiday break and two weeks of no school. Along with excitement about upcoming festivities and family gatherings, the mood here at West Oakland Middle School includes a bit of worry – and a lot of gratitude – among parents.
“It has been a very difficult year for us financially, so this is really helpful,” said Vashti Means. As president of the parent organization at the school, she is helping to pass out 50 bags of groceries to fellow parents and grateful to be able to receive a bag for her family. Inside each bundle are potatoes, apples, sweet potatoes as well as boxes of rice, beans, oatmeal, cans of vegetables and soups and a bag of frozen chicken.
It will feed the family several meals.
At a school where 86 to 100 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to district and state data, school meals are in some cases a mainstay of a child’s nutritional intake.
So here – and at many other schools in Oakland Unified School District - food assistance supplied by community donors will help sustain kids and their families over the break.
“Give those boys two bags,” one parent volunteer said as the distribution continued. Five brothers in that family were likely to be fending for themselves this holiday. Also mentioned were two newly homeless families; one lost their house to a fire this month and the other saw their rent hiked to a level they couldn’t afford.
Oakland Unified under former superintendent Tony Smith launched itself into becoming a full service community school district, enlisting the help of local organizations and county agencies to support the families of students in high poverty areas.
Upwards of 68 percent of the students in Oakland Unified qualify for the federal government’s Free and Reduced Lunch Program during the school year. But what happens when school is out is a more tenuous affair, different for each school.
“We know that some Oakland students depend on school breakfast, lunch, snack and supper, so we are concerned about access to food over the long holiday break,” Michelle Oppen, manager of the Health and Wellness programs in the district.
Luckily community organizations and foundations have stepped up to help. In the case of West Oakland Middle, food is donated by the Alameda County Community Food Bank and picked up and organized by the school’s Family Resource Center manager, Jason Madison, funded by the Safe Passages program of The Atlantic Philanthropies.
Atlantic Philanthropies is funding community and family centers at five Oakland middle schools – Coliseum College Prepatory Middle School, Madison Middle School, Roosevelt Middle and United for Success Middle School, along with West Oakland Middle.
But it’s a good thing that people’s hearts just naturally open at the holiday season because there is plenty of need.
True Vine Baptist Church in West Oakland donated 150 turkeys and some 220 new coats to students and families at Martin Luther King Elementary and gave brand new coats to all 229 kids at the school.
The coats were donated by members of the True Vine Baptist Church and the Hillside Covenant Church of Walnut Creek.
“It feels good to give back to the community,” said Charlene Adams who organized the coats and turkey drives for True Vine Ministries and who is president of the Parent Teacher Association at Martin Luther King Elementary. “I’m loving it,” she said.
Parent Rowana Mason waited for her turkey “with four kids to feed, it will make a great holiday dinner,” she said.
Principal Roma Groves of Martin Luther King Elementary said the best thing about community schools is as its name implies: community.
“This school isn’t about poverty, it’s about community. This area may not be economically wealthy but we all come together. There are many helping organizations helping, all helping families succeed.”