Quality School Food as an Equity Issue

Small moments break your heart sometimes.  The school food was not good, but as the bell rang to end lunch, she was hurriedly squirrelling leftover sandwiches and half sandwiches into her backpack.  A slight kindergartener, she couldn’t eat all those sandwiches herself, but was taking them home for later, and maybe for others.

We take it for granted, but for some kids the only predictable meal they have is what they get at school.  And when we serve them a flimsy piece of processed turkey on white bread, as was the case here, it says something sad about the value we place on them.   But many students are desperate, and will literally take whatever they can get.  It should not be like this.

The times they are a changing in Oakland though, and I don’t know who has been the visionary behind OUSD’s school food progress but really exciting things are happening.  If you follow my facebook you would have seen how OUSD is getting fresher fish onto plates in lunchrooms than you and I get.  This weekend there was a great article in the Chronicle on the new West Oakland Central Kitchen plan and also the overall move to scratch made meals alongside a demonstration farm.

Soon to be gone are the frozen, pre-packaged meals, driven hundreds of miles and left sitting on heating carts, replaced by real fresh good food.  This is needed and appreciated.  When you sat in school lunches in Oakland it often sifted into a couple of camps.  Those that brought their own food, or had plenty of food at home and would pick through the usually unappetizing meals, and those who were just plain hungry and would make the best of it.  As a parent in the article above put it, “My kids have never eaten school lunch…it looks disgusting.”

In Oakland roughly 3 of 4 students qualify for free/reduced lunch.  And even more important is that subsection of students who rely on school food for daily nutrition.  For too long we have literally fed these kids the scraps (remember “pink slime”), so it’s great to see Oakland taking the lead in providing fresh good local food, bringing it from West Oakland, and also using the site as a demonstration facility to teach students about food and nutrition.

We aren’t going to solve poverty or hunger any time quickly, and I expect I will continue to see kids in Oakland sneaking food out of the cafeteria.  And while the fact that so many children are hungry in the world’s richest country is shameful, I think we can at least start to feel better about the food we are providing our most needy, and the long absent respect that signals.

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