Oakland, California

Oakland, the other City by the Bay, is located in Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco. It is the 5th most important port in the United States, and 40 % of California’s more than 12 billion dollar agricultural exports move through the port.  Tankers and container ships from all over the world and huge cranes fill the visual landscape of the port and its waters, crowned by the Bay Bridge, which connects Oakland and San Francisco. In its 200-year plus history, Oakland has gone through successive economic stages of timber harvesting and fishing, ranching, farming, and shipping. Today it is highly urbanized and the 8th most populous city in California. The city itself stretches from the flatlands and marshes of the bay to the hills of Piedmont where some of the region’s wealthiest people live. Alameda County, of which Oakland is the county seat, reaches north and south along the coast, encompassing Berkeley and San Leandro,  and to the south and east,  Dublin, Hayward, and Fremont. Due to the many waves of immigration over its history, Oakland today has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in California, with more than 125 different languages or dialects spoken there.



“In my competitive nature, I want to have the best food in California, in Oakland schools, local and freshly prepared, served in a welcoming and inviting environment. I want this every day,” says Jennifer LeBarre emphatically, brooking no interference with her goal. “If you can do it in Oakland, you can do it anywhere, and you have to do it in Oakland!”

Her goal is a formidable one in Oakland’s complex school district. There are 89 schools, some with no cooking or serving facilities other than folding tables and a refrigerator. Prescott Elementary School, used as the chief central kitchen, was designed for 8,000 meals per day and is currently producing 20,000 meals per day.

“It may be corny, but the kids are what get me going, “says Jennifer. “I just see it and know it could be better.” However, she continues, six years ago she couldn’t have spoken out like she does now. Then, there was no support, nothing to be proud of. Now, she says, I can speak out and not be afraid of losing my job. “The superintendent has to create an environment to do what is right for the students, a direction dedicated to the students.”

With funding and support from the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California and TomKat Charitable Trust, the Center conducted a one-year feasibility study for Rethinking School Lunch in Oakland Unified School District, undertaken in 2011, and in 2012 all recommendations were approved by the Board of Education. In November 2012, voters will be asked to approve Measure J, a bond measure which will allow Oakland Unified School District to implement part of the feasibility study, in particular, a new purpose-built central kitchen.


Origin: South China

“I cook Chinese at home every night. Here, I cook pasta, meatballs, meatloaf, and chow mein. The kids like my chow mein and my stir-fried chicken too.” She uses lots of vegetables, she says, and fresh ones, not those frozen ones, “and no more canned vegetables either” and she makes her own Hoisin sauce. “That way, less salt.” Sylvia has been in the Oakland Unified School District for more than 12 years and tells us she’s seen some changes. “In the beginning, everything was prepared by Sysco. Now there is cooking at the different sites.” Sylvia says she likes to try new things, like whole grain pasta, and fresh, different pizza toppings. “I want the kids to know what different tastes are and different colors. Soon, I hope we’ll have a salad bar. I always want the kids to try everything.” When we asked her what was challenging about her job, she laughs, “Getting the kids to eat the meatloaf. Ninety percent of my students” – she has 650 at her school –“are Latino and they don’t know meatloaf. I walk around and try to get them just to try it. But the black kids love it.”

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