California Thursdays: Building Farm to School in Oakland Unified School District

photo 2Today’s guest poster brings us back to Oakland for a more in-depth look at California Thursdays, a program we’ve shared about a bit in the past. After a year of service with Community HealthCorps in Mendocino County, John Pleasants has joined FoodCorps California and Oakland Unified School District to strengthen the district’s California Thursdays program. Continue reading to discover how Oakland Unified is spearheading local procurement programs in 85 schools across the district.

Oakland Unified School District is changing the way it serves school food one day at a time. Every day, school kitchens in Oakland are serving lunch to over 22,000 students, and every Thursday those same kitchens are now serving locally sourced and freshly prepared meals to kids across the district. 

California Thursdays began as a collaboration between the Center for Ecoliteracy and Oakland Unified in 2013, and has now expanded to 15 other school districts, with more signing on in the coming year. It’s an amazing program that allows schools to move beyond sourcing just local fruits and vegetables–a great first step, to be sure–and expand into sourcing locally for the whole plate–which includes local meats, grains, and dairy products. With some help from a USDA Farm to School grant, we have also been able to build a dynamic program that is based around local food, while incorporating better training for our kitchen and cooking staff and working towards changing the way we serve and prepare all of our food.

Research, Research, Research!

One of the more fascinating projects underway at OUSD as part of California Thursdays is a research project delving into the district’s food purchases. Starting with purchasing data from the 2012/13 school year, I’ve built on research from previous FoodCorps members by communicating with food suppliers and defining products as local based on where they are grown, harvested, processed, prepared, stored and distributed.

To be able to better increase the district’s purchases of California foods, it’s crucial to first know where that food is coming from. The research involves all food the district has purchased, and makes for some intriguing discoveries once we start learning about all of our meats, grains, and dairy products, not just our fresh fruits and vegetables. Another part of my work involves making efforts to support local small and mid-sized farms. The goal is to move beyond just thinking about local food and instead to really think about what types of farms are food system is built upon and if we are properly supporting the small farms that are vital to our agriculture. So far this project has focused on research and learning more about small farms in California that can realistically provide food for a large district.

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Oakland Unified School District and Center for Ecoliteracy’s 2012-2013 Baseline Report for California Thursdays.

Promotion & Marketing

A really big piece of growing Oakland’s California Thursdays program is getting the word out to staff, students, and families at the 85 different school sites in our district. It’s a really large task and so far has involved lots of on-site visits to schools along with training for our staff and community meetings with Oakland residents. In terms of school visits, I try and get to a different school every week, and usually on a Thursday, in order to promote the program. Sometimes these visits are as simple as showing up at the cafeteria with posters, flyers, and stickers and spending some time talking to students about their lunch. Other times co-workers and I will also be working on recipe development, testing new menu items with California foods and getting feedback from students.

These projects are really important for our program since they give an opportunity for students to learn- when they know that they’re eating local food, freshly prepared, scratch-cooked food it gives them an opportunity to get engaged and enthusiastic about. On a recent visit students thought that my co-worker and I ran a food truck and that we were trying to promote our food- I had to explain over and over that we had prepared everything with the cooks in the regular school kitchen! A big lesson for me has been seeing that even when a district does something really amazing like sourcing all food locally one day a week, it won’t have the desired impact unless students are aware and educated about the program.

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FoodCorps Service Members, Sarah Stowell and John Pleasants.

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