Nakheu Saephanh, an OUSD cafeteria manager, went from overseeing a staff of four prior to the pandemic to working with more than two dozen after schools shut down and the district ramped up its nutrition efforts. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Oakland schools to close on March 13, 2020, Nakheu Saephanh’s first thought was that kids could go hungry and she and her colleagues had to do something to prevent this. As a cafeteria manager at Franklin Elementary School, Saephanh oversaw four other staff as they prepared breakfast and lunch for the school’s nearly 600 students each day. 

“I was just worried about the kids,” she said. “How are we going to make sure that families get fed?” 

Saephanh wasn’t the only person alarmed. On the day that closures were announced, a group of Oakland Unified School District officials met to figure out how to keep food operations running through the shutdown. At that time, schools were going to be closed through April 5th. They had no idea the effort would have to last for more than a year. 

“We convened a meeting of the nutrition service staff, field supervisors, the executive director of nutrition services, and really made a commitment to figure out how to get food out to the community on the very next Monday,” said Preston Thomas, one of the district’s chief administrators involved in the crash effort. 

It wasn’t easy, but eventually the district put together a system that would coordinate hundreds of volunteers, donations and partnerships with other local organizations, and dozens of out-of-work parents to help families sign up for meals and get the food delivered each week.

OUSD families visit the the packing operation at La Escuelita Elementary School to pick up food for their families. Credit: Amir Aziz

Over the past year, OUSD and its community partners served more than 11 million meals to Oakland kids, through distribution sites set up at school campuses and home deliveries. In comparison, during the 2018-2019 school year, the last one that was completely in person, the district served just over 5 million meals. As it did in so many other ways, the pandemic revealed in stark relief existing inequalities, and in the case of Oakland schools, the extent of food insecurity for many Oakland families and how much some families had come to rely on schools to provide nutritious meals for their kids.

The work required a massive change in the scale of food operations in the district, and a shift in the way meals are distributed, said Carmelita Reyes, an OUSD operations director who was involved in the meal distribution efforts. 

“How do we change our service model from a cafeteria to a drive-up or walk-up? And change from one meal to a bulk meal perspective where you’re picking up several days’ worth of food for a child? And how do you do that with almost no staff, because staff were mainly staying home?” Reyes said.

The pandemic’s early months

Saephanh, the manager at Franklin Elementary, was assigned to Garfield Elementary during the pandemic, which became one of OUSD’s 12 meal distribution sites last March. She went from overseeing four workers at Franklin to suddenly having a staff of about 30, including volunteers. 

At sites across Oakland, cafeteria workers went from preparing several hundred meals each day prior to the pandemic, to making and packaging thousands. Twice a week, families could come to one of the school sites to pick up several days’ worth of breakfasts, lunches, suppers, and snacks, for each of their children. They’d arrive to see volunteers or staff like Saephanh stationed in front of the schools or in parking lots, handing out bags and boxes of cheeseburgers, chicken parmesan, fruit cups, pizza, sandwiches, milk, and other entrées, sides, and desserts.

At the start of summer, the district expanded to 24 school campuses for food distribution, and they were also giving out boxes of fresh produce, diapers, pet food, and hygiene products that were donated by other organizations like the Alameda County Community Food Bank, Eat. Learn. Play., and Help A Mother Out

OUSD nutrition staff and volunteers form an assembly line to pack boxes of meals for students. Credit: Amir Aziz

Leaders of Growing Together, an organization that promotes healthy eating and gardening in Oakland schools, were also figuring out how to adjust their work, which heavily relied on hands-on activities on school campuses. When schools closed, Growing Together decided to use their existing funding to deliver fresh produce from local farms—avocados, collard greens, string beans, peaches, corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, and more—directly to families, said Grey Kolevzon, the co-director of the organization. In April 2020, the group launched a pilot program serving about 200 families in East Oakland. Last summer, they expanded to about 300 families in San Francisco, Richmond, and Oakland, with the vast majority of families in Oakland. 

“We made weekly deliveries to every family of between 13 and 17 pounds of produce,” Kolevzon said. “We probably bought 40 or 50 different things on a regular basis.”

The group also hired Oakland parents, many of whom were out of work because of the pandemic, to make the produce box deliveries. One of those parents is Erick Yanez, who started doing the delivery work last July. Before this job, Yanez worked as a veterinary technician and as a UPS driver, but the inconsistent scheduling at each job made it difficult for him to take care of his three children, so he had to quit.

Each box that Erick Yanez delivers contains a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, and suppers. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I pretty much stayed home with the family for a good three months, which was good because I was able to spend more time with my kids,” Yanez said.

He learned about the job delivering food from a teacher at his son’s school, Hoover Elementary in West Oakland. Between March 16 and July 30, 2020, OUSD delivered or distributed more than 4 million meals.

School’s in session—and food needs change

When school started in August 2020, the district faced another challenge: The number of families showing up to campuses to pick up meals had dropped off significantly. During the peak of summer, OUSD was serving 16,000 families weekly, but once school started, that dipped to about 2,500 families, Thomas said. 

“We started asking them, ‘Why aren’t you coming to pick up the food anymore?’” Thomas said. “There was this real shift that as school came back, they were really supporting their kids with distance learning at home.”

On Monday and Thursday mornings, when meals were available for pick-up from school campuses, families were helping their students with distance learning and weren’t able to leave the house, and OUSD had to adjust its model again. 

In October, the district launched a delivery pilot with Growing Together to deliver school meals once a week and boxes of fresh produce once a month. They hired about 25 out-of-work parents to make the deliveries, who make about $750 per week. Around November, OUSD expanded the delivery service district-wide, and also enlisted parents to help make phone calls to OUSD families. They managed to sign up about 12,000 for the service. 

Yanez, who graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 2005, has continued to deliver meals for about a year. This summer, his workday starts around 10 a.m. at one of the distribution hubs the district is still operating. Three to four days a week he loads his car, a rented Toyota Prius, to the brim with a week’s worth of school meals to make his deliveries. On a typical day, Yanez has about 120 boxes to deliver to 80 families. He can fit 36 boxes in his car per trip, so he has to make multiple trips back to the hub to get more boxes.  

Each day, he has a different area of Oakland to deliver to—one day might take him to Chinatown, West Oakland, Lake Merritt, and Downtown Oakland. Many times, he leaves food on the doorstep for families who want to avoid direct contact, or for kids who are home alone who will grab the boxes after he leaves. 

Erick Yanez delivers food to about 80 homes on each of his routes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Kelly Ye is a mom of two living in West Oakland who signed up for the food deliveries about six months ago after hearing about it from her daughter’s school. Once a week, she comes down from her apartment in West Oakland to greet Yanez, who brings two boxes of food for her kids.

“They really like the food,” Ye said as she met Yanez earlier this week. “They love the broccoli, the yogurt, the little one really likes it.” 

Universal meals could be here to stay

If there’s boxes left over at the end of the day, Yanez takes the food home to his kids or offers it to friends and neighbors. But the work will wind down at the end of July, and Yanez will have to find another job. Most students will be back in school for in-person learning in August, and will start eating on campus again. Growing Together will shift back to distributing fresh produce from school campuses instead of the deliveries.

“All the families appreciate and enjoy getting the food because it helps them a lot. When both parents have to work, and kids are home alone, it just helps to have food, veggies, and fruit so kids can eat while they’re gone,” Yanez said. “It helps us a lot too. I’m able to have a job and still hang out with my family. I appreciate that a lot.”

With some families opting for a remote, independent study option for this school year, there could be an opportunity to continue the delivery service for them, Thomas said.

The “universal” meals program was possible because of USDA waivers that allowed all students to receive free lunch, not just those who filled out a form and met income qualifications, as was required prior to the pandemic. The USDA will continue that benefit into the 2021-2022 school year, in part, Thomas said, because of the success of programs like Oakland’s. The California legislature is also considering making universal meals permanent, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. 

“I think people have recognized the value of providing nutrition for students and families, and this isn’t just in Oakland, but across the state and country,” Thomas said. “That emerged out of this work.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.