Rethinking School Lunch in Oakland

Rethinking School Lunch in Oakland: Comprehensive School Meal Program Reform to Increase Equitable Access to Healthy Food, Establish Career Pathways in Sustainable Agriculture, and Improve Local Food Systems

Research Team: Malo Hutson and Jason Corburn (City & Regional Planning, UC Berkeley), Moira O’Neill (Law, UC Berkeley), Christyna Serrano (Education, UC Berkeley), Zenobia Barlow (Center for Ecoliteracy), and Jennifer LeBarre (Oakland Unified School District)

Funding Level: $50,000

Research Summary

Urban school meal programs present a significant opportunity to implement food systems reform strategies that both increase a vulnerable population’s access to nutritious food and support agroecology. This case study examines the partnership formed between the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL) to implement Rethinking School Lunch Oakland (RSLO), a systems change effort addressing food access, health, educational, environmental, and social issues simultaneously through school meal program reform. Implementation of RSLO presented many financial, social, and political hurdles.

This study examines OUSD and CEL’s individual and collective responses to these challenges faced in the implementation of comprehensive school food system reform, the progress of incremental programmatic changes under RSLO, and the processes used by OUSD and its partners to determine how to best implement the multiple facets of RSLO. This research will offer an analysis that can inform and educate other school districts interested in attempting similar change, potentially having significant implications for urban food systems reform and school lunch programs nationally.


  1. Assess whether investments made by OUSD in new kitchens and equipment improve student eating of healthy school meals.
  2. Examine how well the current school meal program serves K-5 students prior to the investments.
Photo of children sampling food.
Taste testing at West Oakland Middle School. Photo by: Center for Ecoliteracy


  1. Observed 6,437 K-5 students during meal time.
  2.  Interviewed 144 parents and 72 staff members at school sites.
  3. Analyzed California Healthy Kids Survey responses to understand how current school meal programs serve students.


Food insecurity is a dominant issue at high poverty school sites. Staff and parents reported that hunger is a dominant issue at school sites where more than 75% of students qualify for free and reduced price meals. The majority of students at high-poverty elementary schools also live within low food access neighborhoods.

School meal programs can help. Staff report that the school meal program is the primary way that sites can respond to student hunger.

Access to freshly prepared meals makes a difference in whether students try the food. We observed that while all students received a high-quality California Thursdays meal, whether students had access to freshly prepared meals appeared to strongly influence whether students ate, or even tried, the improved school meals. Kindergarten students at all sites without access to freshly prepared food had difficulty opening the school meal packaging.

Freshly prepared meals appears to influence parent perception of the quality of the school meal program. Parents at sites with availability of freshly prepared food are almost twice as likely to perceive the school meals as healthy.


Improving the quality, preparation, and appearance of school food—through operations shifts that require kitchen and equipment upgrades, and staff training—appears important to improving student eating of healthy school food.

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