As we contemplate our concerns about the many issues in the world, we tend to think of them as separate demons. Food problems, education problems, employment problems, crime problems… the list goes on and on. The problem is that they are not at all separate, but completely interrelated. As I look at the reform proposed by the Oakland Unified School District (the “OUSD”) Feasibility Study (the “Study), I do not see it as a solution to the school lunch problem; I see a solution to a community problem.
Let’s look at Oakland, California. According to the Bay Area Census for 2010, the home ownership rate is 41% compared to 59% rental property. The median household income is $40,000. The poverty rate is 19.4%. Less than half of the population has greater than a high school education. The Uniform Crime Report for 2012 provides that the crime rate in Oakland was 2,018 violent crimes per 100,000 (for some frame of reference, the violent crime rate for Lincoln (population 264,175) was 397 per 100,000 and for Omaha (population 394,487) was 594 per 100,000). According to the Study, the OUSD serves 6.6 million meals per year to students, of which 70% of said students are eligible for free and reduced meals.
So, how do any of these things relate to transformations in school lunch programs? Absolutely everything. If (or, optimistically, when) these reforms become reality, the effects on the community could be life changing. The goals of the Strategic Plan are to develop social, emotional and physical health, ensure high-quality instructional core, and create equitable opportunities for learning. To facilitate these goals, the Study provides for gardens for each school, Central Commissary that would service all 89 kitchens in the OUSD, provide adequate kitchens in each OUSD kitchen, and provide School-Community Kitchens that would serve the students during the day and the community in the evening with hunger alleviation, vocational training, cooking classes and community events.
Food problems are addressed in multiple ways. Healthy food options are provided not only to students, but to entire families who are facing food scarcity. As families learn about and are given access to healthy foods, food changes begin to take place within the home. As families begin to provide healthier food options within the home, children are better able to learn and participate at school. As food problems are addressed within the school, educational problems begin to be addressed as well. The schools these kids attend offer alternative, hands-on methods of learning by incorporating garden upkeep and cooking (which address health, science, math, reading and physical activity) and cooperation and collaboration (which address social relationships). Students who suffer from various behavioral and learning deficits may be better served through these alternative learning opportunities than in conventional classrooms. Access to and education regarding food will provide these students with marketable life skills that are not otherwise learned in conventional classrooms. As these students become healthier, they are better able to learn. As they learn more, they take pride in their school, their community, and themselves. As they become truly excited about learning, they carry that excitement and pride home, potentially expanding family involvement, which will trickle out the community. In addition, they become excited about education itself. As that excitement grows, they set goals to graduate from high school. The number of students graduating rises above the current dismal rate less than fifty percent. Employment problems are addressed for the parents as job opportunities become available within the school system, and later as these students graduate from high school and begin to contribute to the community. As they are now working within their community, they contribute to the economy. As they contribute to the economy, home ownership rises, which has a huge impact on community stability. As home ownership rises, people begin to take pride in their neighborhoods and crime rates decline. As the community begins to stabilize and these students begin to age and have children, they have been provided the tools with which to better care for their children beginning at conception (eating healthy and having the economic means to care for their children).
There are many obstacles that face these programs. These programs often begin in areas with extremely low socio-economic status (such as Oakland), where resources are scarce. In the Oakland Study, the project estimated cost is almost $26 million, which does not include additional staffing costs and ongoing operating expenses. Potential sources for funding, such as local support, grants and philanthropic programs, would help alleviate some of these costs. Even without this funding, the long-term gains within the community far outweigh the costs associated therewith. Some studies suggest a cost-benefit ratio of $7.00 for every $1 spent on early childhood education. While these studies are based on early childhood education, imagine what the return would be for students who receive not only early childhood education, but hands-on, skill-based, social-based curricula that involve not only the children, but the entire community.
To transform school lunch from a problem to be solved, we need to teach these kids that feeding them quickly and cheaply for return to the classroom is not the answer. Rather, we need to teach them that some things take time and money (teaching patience and budgeting) and that the return to a classroom that involves gardens, food, friends, alternative learning methods that level the learning field for students of all learning abilities while still incorporating math, reading, health, science and physical activity, may not be such a bad thing after all.
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