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New signs highlight an array of fresh produce at the Los Compadres Market and Restaurant. HEAC staff built a relationship with the owner over three years.

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Oakland Farm to School

Oakland Schools Become Neighborhood Produce Markets, Expanding Residents' Access to Healthy, Affordable Food

In 2004, community organizers for the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC)—with 30 years of experience inspiring young people to be life-long builders of a just and compassionate multi-cultural society—invited residents of Oakland to a focus group at a local park that had fallen prey to crime and vandalism and that parents felt was no longer a safe place for their children to play. At that meeting, a number of mothers said that what their neighborhood needed, in addition to park improvements, was a farmers' market. That discussion echoed growing awareness that a community's health is directly linked to not only to access to opportunities for physical activity, but also to access to healthy food.

A team of EBAYC youth researchers was already in the process of documenting the problem of food access and, after exploring possible solutions, decided on a model that would bring farm-fresh produce to neighborhood schools. Thus "Full Circle Farms" was born, evolving over the next several years into the Oakland Farms-to-Schools Network (OFTSN), a collaboration with the California Endowment-funded initiative, Healthy Eating, Active Communities (HEAC), which aims to fight the growing childhood obesity epidemic in California and to develop policy changes that will reduce the risk factors for diabetes and obesity.

Nearly 20 percent of Oakland residents have incomes below the federal poverty line, and the percentage is even higher in the city's "flatlands"—the neighborhoods of West Oakland, San Antonio, Fruitvale, and East Oakland. Here, liquor stores and fast food outlets far outnumber stores that sell fresh produce.

EBAYC's youth researchers surveyed local residents and found that 40 percent of the residents of San Antonio were buying most of their groceries outside of the neighborhood; and that 84 percent said they would buy more groceries (instead of processed junk foods) for their families if the prices were more affordable. Meanwhile, the health consequences were stark: California Department of Education FitnessGram results in 2005-06 showed that more than 36% of Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) students were overweight, with the percentage increasing steadily as students get older. The survey also revealed that half of local families had household members with diabetes, obesity, or high blood pressure.

When asked how to turn around these statistics, EBAYC youth proposed starting with the institution that effects them most—their schools.

"Schools were a natural place to site farm stands because children and their parents were there every day," explains OFTSN project coordinator Christine Cherdboonmuang. "And since so many public agencies and community-based organizations in Oakland have already established programs and invested resources in public schools, reaching out to these large, organized centers of the city's population could begin to scale up these changes that were needed not just in a couple of neighborhoods but throughout the community."

In the initial pilot program, two elementary schools (Franklin and Garfield) were transformed into community resources for fresh, healthy, convenient, and affordable food through weekly School Produce Markets operated by and for the community, with staffing provided by parents of school students. One day a week, three long tables and display crates are set up, filled with up to 50 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with herbs, nuts and honeys.

"The community's response has been amazing," says Cherdboonmuang. "This year, the number of parent volunteers who stepped up to help often exceeded the number of shifts available."

Having farm stands in front of schools also opened the door to "hands-on, in your face" nutrition education and other programs that encourage a healthy lifestyle. "It's not the usual 'don't eat this, don't eat that,' but a more positive approach, visually attractive, with free samples and cooking demonstrations," says Cherdboonmuang, "plus the instant gratification of being able to buy it right now!"

Patricia Medina, who lived near one of the Produce Markets and shopped for her family's groceries there, joined the school's Healthy Living Parent Leader Group. "I went to the training and was excited to learn the difference between organic and non-organic food," she recalls. "I learned about unhealthy fats and healthy fats, how to read the labels and portions on food packages, and how to determine how much sugar is hidden in various foods—which I would not have imagined! Afterwards, I became more interested in and paid more attention to what I eat."

Medina began working at the fruit and vegetable stand and it changed her eating habits forever. "I learned about the seasons of each fruit and vegetable, including different kinds of Asian vegetables, and the cooking demonstrations taught me healthy recipes for my family. At the same time, working in front of the school has given me the opportunity to share this information with more parents."

Medina now feeds her family less meat and more fruits and vegetables, and sees the difference that healthier options makes for other families, too. "The children getting out of school love to buy strawberries and grapes—these are their favorite fruits—and it makes me happy to see how they make the decision to buy fruit instead of an ice cream bar."

Sales at both pilot sites have grown steadily and in 2008, 99% of 117 survey respondents reported that their families have been eating more fresh fruits and vegetables since they began shopping at the School Produce Market. At the same time, 11 local family farms have supplemented their incomes with weekly direct bulk sales of their produce to the School Produce Markets; at the end of each school year, the farmers receive thank-you letters and photographs of Oakland families with their produce.

Based on the growing district-wide reputation of the School Produce Markets, EBAYC formed the Oakland Farms-to-Schools Network—a collaboration among community-based organizations, the school district and county agencies—to expand to 10 additional school sites in Fall 2009. Among the criteria for site selection: 75% or more of the student population qualifies for the free/reduced school meal program. Management of the School Produce Markets will begin to transition to the Oakland Unified School District's Nutrition Services Department and the program will be integrated into the district's overall Wellness Policy.

"This transition begins to fulfill the potential of this opportunity for turning neighborhood markets into a city-wide local food system," says Cherdboonmuang, "using institutional buying power to both keep healthy food accessible to low-income urban residents, while providing greater economic security to family farmers."

Ninety-nine percent of 2008 customer survey respondents said that they and their families were eating more fruit and vegetables since they began shopping at the School Produce Market. "This work is critical because so many of our students live in 'food deserts' and this may be the only place where they receive fresh produce," says Jennifer LeBarre, Nutrition Services Director for Oakland Unified School District. "The markets have become such an anticipated source of healthy after-school snacks that many students now choose fresh produce over the ice cream cart, sometimes using coupons they have earned in class through a program that links the market to positive classroom rewards. We are also developing a new Farm-to-Cafeteria Initiative to increase the amount of locally grown produce in school meals, improving students' nutrition and overall wellness during and after the school day."

Cherdboonmuang's advice to other communities interested in launching a similar program: "There's a lot of sheer physical work involved—picking up produce, setting up stands, hauling boxes—plus a certain level of infrastructure—a truck or van, a refrigerator, trained volunteers, and a market manager. It's also important to get the school faculty and administration on board to help advocate for the market, as well as tap into existing structures at the school, like Alameda County Health Department's Harvest of the Month curriculum and after-school parent meetings. It really takes a team of people working together to make it happen."

For more information:

Christine Cherdboonmuang, Project Coordinator, Oakland Farms-to-Schools Network, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), (510) 533-1092, ext. 30,

Jennifer LeBarre, Nutrition Services Director, Oakland Unified School District, (510) 879-8348,

Tamiko Johnson, HEAC Oakland Site Coordinator, Alameda Public Health Department: (510) 595-6439,