Not Your Father’s Lunch Ladies!

LK HeadshotNot Your Father’s (or even your own) Lunch Ladies Three Days at the 2014 School Food Focus National Gathering   February 8, 2014 Oakland
Oakland California was host to the 5th Annual School Food Focus Gathering – “Transforming School Food”. Part conference, part support network, and unlike any “conference” I’ve ever attended. School nutrition directors from US largest cities – school districts that routinely feed over 40,000 public school kids a day – often feeding the kids the only real meals they will eat. Most estimates are that kids in urban districts are consuming over 2/3 of their daily calories at school. So School Food matters. A lot. These food service nutrition directors are the front line between kids, hunger – and health.
It is a community of sharing — of best practices, creative futuristic ideas, and some very gnarly details (exactly what is a fruit or vegetable “second”? How long can a zucchini be?). And of the stories of frustration that challenge the daylights out of these incredibly earnest, modest, and low-key professionals. (Short-staffed, antiquated equipment, tight dollars and increasingly burdensome regulations.) It was interesting to be among them on the day that President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill with the huge whack out of funding for SNAP. (Response from Michael Peck, the Director of School Nutrition Services in Boston: “More kids coming to school very hungry.”) The Gathering is a much-anticipated annual event for 200 plus school food directors, their “Community” partners (more on this later because that is where I fit in), government representatives and vendors. It began as the brainchild of Toni Liquori, a NYC PhD and activist who has devoted her life to improving school meals – and to creating an open. Sharing community of those who share them. She has created an unusual arena of openness – there’s no competition, even for Federal dollars, when you are a school district tasked with feeding public school kids healthful, palatable meals on a ridiculously tight budget. (Pennies really.) Poor Toni. Just before the Gathering, a moment of triumph both for her vision and her organization, she fractured her ankle and was sidelined in New York. And this is not the sort of organization with a budget for a Jumbo-Tron Message from our Founder. The Gathering started modestly, as the veterans describe it. In a facility in Austin (Jennifer LeBarre, the visionary director of Oakland School Food department remembers that she “read a lot of books because there wasn’t any TV”) with a group of School Nutrition Directors meeting each other in a collaborative quiet encounter, for the first time. The creators of School Food Focus realized that improving school food is a collaborative effort, not just across school districts in the country, but within each school district. And so, it invited Nutrition Services directors to not only come to the gathering (with staff as they could), but also to invite their Community Partners –the non-profit and community organizations that are committed to helping the school district get kids access to healthy, fresh, and often-farm-to-school food. Why was I there? I was a “newbie” at the conference – easy to spot because of the green sticker on my name badge. I had a red sticker too, denoting that I was at the Gathering because my organization, Let’s Talk About Food was designated at the Community Partner for the Boston and Cambridge Public School districts. We consider this a great honor. A multi-disciplinary group of us been meeting for the past two years, once a month at Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge/Boston, trying to figure how to improve the quality of the food we serve Massachusetts Public School kids within the four walls of our public schools. How hard could it be, we figured? But that was before we really understood the complexity of the issues. Over the last year, we’ve become focused on Boston, and the feasibility of a school food commissary that could deliver fresh meals to the city’s 50,000 Boston students. Currently, the meals to the 85 +/- BPS schools that don’t have kitchens, are trucked in, frozen from a food services vendor in New York. We’d like to see those meals prepared closer to the schools, and we’d like the hands preparing them to be Boston-based. We’ve been gathering support for this idea to fund a comprehensive, full-on feasibility study around a local commissary. Who else was there? Here’s what I learned: the professionals choose school food. Not for an easy career or predictable hours, (the reality is anything but). But something happens in their personal lives to drive them towards caring about what kids eat, becoming the modern gladiators ion the front line of the school food wars. I heard so many heartening and heart-rending stories. From Bertrand Weber, the nutrition director of the Minneapolis schools whose career had been in the hotel business until his son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He went with his son to school to see what the boy could eat – and was appalled at the choices. Or, Jennifer LeBarre form Oakland whose revelation came fifteen years ago when her son was born. Or former bench scientist Diane Harris, lead for the Center for Disease Control’s Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program, whose two young daughters energized a complete career change and a move to Atlanta to work on healthy school food. It is inspiring to be in their company. Walking the walk is the best way I can put it. What I learned: Over the course of several discussion packed days, I was by turns a) overwhelmed with information, b) slightly shamed by my paucity of experience, and c) ratcheting quickly up the learning curve. Procurement –how to buy smart and efficiently — is a major focus. I found it fascinating to listen to the Upper Midwest Learning Lab’s – a group of school nutrition directors who are forming cooperative buying agreements, one food item at a time – on how hard it was for them to agree on grains to buy in common, so they bundled up their purchases for legumes instead. OR, how school districts and food banks have to be nimble enough to take advantage opportunistically of the more that 50% of produce that doesn’t meet the cosmetic standards set by the retail food world. Who knew that Campbell’s’ soup rejects tomatoes that aren’t perfectly round even though they are going be mashed, stewed and pureed for soup? The Center for Eco-Literacy and the Oakland Central Kitchen Project One of the best things at the Gathering for me was the field trip to the future site of the Oakland Central Kitchen facility. It is a model of a collaborative partnership between a school district –Oakland, and a community organization –the Center for Eco-Literacy in Oakland. Ten years in the making, the fruit of an intense and sustained effort by both the school district, the community and the non-profit, the Central Kitchen is due to begin functioning for the 2015-2016 school year. It is to be funded by the proceeds of a large city bond measure for the school district that earmarked $50 million dollars for the Central Kitchen. The bond measure was backed by over 84% of the voters and the school kitchen project was the most attractive project in the package. A huge achievement. The Central Kitchen will have a kitchen, a garden, and a demonstration kitchen to teach and train Oakland students and families and Oakland’s food service staff. It’s a model to marvel at – and the best aspect, the most “School Focus-y” part of it — is that both the school district and its non-profit partner Center for Eco-Literacy, are beyond willing to share every single things they have learned in their ten years on the path. Budgets, strategic plans, power points for presentations, budgets, demographic data – and most importantly, the experience gained over the course of a decade of working towards a common goal. It offers a roadmap and tool kit that can save our small group of advocates in Boston years of bumbling. An inspirational “Gathering” for me. I hope that we can bring the gifts of the gathering back home to Boston. Suggestion to all: Download the toolkit at
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