Something Beautiful for West Oakland – The Center: The Central Kitchen, Instructional Farm and Education Center

As a kid growing up in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), I have not so fond memories of rubbery pizza and cold broccoli that used to look back at me as I never wanted to eat it. Man, was I jealous of the kids with Lunchables. I hated my school lunch so much that one of my favorite lunch meals became the 25 cent bag of Doritos and Now and Laters I used to buy in the morning from the store across the street from Lafayette Elementary school.

Now fast forward 20 years where I am now working for that very district in community engagement. Guess what, kids still aren’t in love with their lunch. The broccoli that I stared at that stared back at me got substituted for broccoli that’s now served in plastic wrapping and shipped to 56 schools. 56 OUSD schools currently get pre-packaged food sent to them. So in 2012, Oakland voted for Measure J with 84% of the vote. Measure J would allow OUSD to utilize a $475 million facilities bond to improve Oakland schools. One of things that came out of that was the Central Kitchen in West Oakland.

The Center isn’t just a kitchen. It will serve as an Urban Instructional Farm, a Central Kitchen and as an Education Center. The facility is slated to be a state of the art building costing in excess of $34 million. It would provide food for more than 38,000 children while utilizing organic and fresh ingredients. However, the Center will do much more than provide meals to district schools. It will serve as a farm and greenhouse that serve as a learning laboratory where students will learn how to cook and garden and also as a produce market stand for a community known as being a food desert. There is a linked learning component that would allow for the district to build a curriculum that integrates nutrition and STEM education while creating real world pathways. Basically, this is a long way from my rubbery pizza.

However, it ain’t all roses. There are some that opposed to the project citing that there was a lack of engagement on the front end from the previous administration and that we, the current group are still making mistakes. I want to be fair, as someone who recently joined OUSD’s staff as a Community Engagement Specialist. This may be one of the reasons I now have a job in the district I had the pleasure of being educated by as a young student. I’ve seen the apologies, I watched them be made at a recent community engagement event and it is my personal opinion that if mistakes were made (and there were) then you apologize and work to be better. I have every intention to engage this community in an open and honest way. West Oakland means a lot to me for a bunch of reasons. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to see a state of the art facility built in West Oakland and I have no intention of doing that. What we will do is work hard to ensure that we are engaging the community better moving forward. I think the superintendent has shown his commitment by building a department meant to focus solely on engagement. Hopefully this feels different, I don’t know when an article was written in this manner. I don’t want to hide or run from our mistakes, but learn and move forward, better.

At the end of the day, we have the opportunity to feed a district where 70% of its students are on free or reduced lunch. We have an opportunity to add value to a community that has been grossly underserved. We have an opportunity to teach young people in a way that we haven’t been teaching them. We have an opportunity to make good on a promise to the voters that voted for Measure J at 84%. We have an opportunity to honor the 70% of local residents that were in support of the new kitchen in a local survey conducted by residents. And selfishly, we have an opportunity to accomplish something that I wish adults would have fought for when I was a poor student in this district all those years ago. Let’s build something great together.