No More Gopher Flesh: Oakland Kids Chow Down on Veggies

At my elementary school, and probably at yours, we sang a subversive little song about the cuisine served to us in the lunchroom that involved greasy grimy gopher guts, mutilated monkey meat, and oven-fried parakeet.  All of it pretty unappetizing — and probably coincidentally, all of it animal-based.

Many schools around the United States are introducing more fresh produce. (Health Dialogues)

So kids in Oakland schools may have to compose a verse or two of their own for Meatless Mondays, when pre-K to sixth-graders are served dishes including veggie lo mein, cheese ravioli, and garden burgers. It’s part of a long-term effort at schools around the country to improve the nutritional profile of the food they serve to students.

The Oakland Unified School District banned two deep-fried staples of many kids’ diets, chicken nuggets and corn dogs.  Fresh produce is on the menu every day at both breakfast and lunch. “What we’re doing is taking the traditional school lunch options and making them healthier and with the environment in mind,” says the district’s director of nutrition services Jennifer LeBarre. “For example, when we do spaghetti, we’re taking a whole-grain pasta and making our own meat sauce using raw ground turkey, instead of getting it premade and shipped to us.”

LeBarre says the district has opened 67 school salad bars, and has several more in the works.  But they’re not an option in some of the district’s older buildings. “In order to have a salad bar and meet all the requirements of the health code, we have to have a certain number of sinks,” LeBarre explains. “At many of our schools it would cost upwards of $600,000 just to get those sinks in.”

Measure J on the November ballot in Oakland would impose a new parcel tax for school facilities to raise $475 million, $44 million of which would go to upgrade kitchens at many individual schools and create a new central cooking facility.

In its national school lunch report card, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates plant-based diets, gave Oakland a B+, up from a C+ in 2008. Susan Levin, the committee’s director of nutrition education, cites programs like school gardens and parent-staffed farmers’ markets as part of the reason for Oakland’s improved grade.

“Let’s say you grew okra, in a garden, in a box, wherever,” Levin says. “Then you get a cooking demonstration, and then you go to the cafeteria and you’re served okra.  Those children go home and, believe it or not, they say to their parents, ‘Let’s buy okra at the grocery store’.”

Oakland doesn’t plan to eliminate meat from their menus on a daily basis, though.  “You will still see hamburgers,” says Jennifer LeBarre,  “you will still see hot dogs, but they’re going to be 100% beef hamburgers with no soy additives, and 100% grass-fed beef hot dogs.”

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Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports issues.  Previously, she produced and co-created KQED's "Pacific Time" and was the deputy foreign editor for "Marketplace". Thorsen began her public radio career while a student at the University of Minnesota, as a ticket taker for "A Prairie Home Companion".

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