10/19/2010 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oakland Takes on Inequity Through School Food

School lunch has been associated with a lot of things since Michelle Obama, the most powerful woman in the universe according to Forbes' latest ranking, put a spotlight on the issue with the launch of her Let's Move! campaign early this year:

Childhood obesity. National security. The growing health care crisis.

And now, even more basic to schooling itself: equity in education.

"School food reform is not separate from school reform; it's part of the basic work we have to do in order to correct systemic injustice, pursue equity, and give our children the best future possible," Tony Smith, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, announced recently.

Smith--a former football team captain at the University of California, Berkeley--assumed leadership of the Oakland schools in 2009 with a goal of providing quality education and equitable outcomes for all children. And he has his work cut out for him.

The Oakland Unified School District is struggling to reverse high dropout rates as well as low reading and math test scores -- and cope with a budget that was slashed by $122 million in 2010. More pointedly, there are dramatic discrepancies in academic achievement that run along racial lines.

For example, by the time they reach 11th grade, only 14 percent of African-American students and 17 percent of Hispanic students are proficient in reading and writing, as Alex Gronke reported in a recent piece for The Bay Citizen.
That stands in stark contrast to a 72 percent proficiency rate among white students.

Creating equitable outcomes for all, Smith said, "starts with taking care of our students' most basic needs, such as nutrition, so they can develop and reach their full potential."

And in Oakland, where 68 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, the school district has recently received some significant support. The Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living, received grants totaling $200,000 last month from the San Francisco-based TomKat Charitable Trust and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation to work with the district as part of a major commitment to transforming school food.

The Center -- which just released a new Rethinking School Lunch guide in recognition of National School Lunch Week (Oct. 11-15) -- previously collaborated with Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation on improving students' knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in relation to food in the nearby Berkeley Unified School District. (That project's successes are documented in a recent report by the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley.)

"Obviously, we understand that these are tough economic times," says Melissa Newel, co-founder of the Oakland School Food Alliance -- a grassroots group that was started by parents and has grown to include community health organizations, students and educators. "Nevertheless, we think this is something that can and must be done, because we don't see nutrition as separate from academic life. We see it as nourishing success."