Forging the Food Justice Path: Part 1

Forging The Food Justice Path: Part 1

Mon 09 Sep 2013

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow

This is the story of a charismatic superintendent who is working to transform Oakland, California into one of the first "full-service community school districts" in the nation, with the understanding that school food reform is an integral part of school reform.

Imagine standing outside a hospital nursery window, looking at two newborn baby boys side-by-side in their plastic bassinets, fists curled and screaming their little lungs out. Both appear healthy, full of life, and, you imagine, ripe with potential. Yet the reality is that after the boys arrive at their homes, the disparity in that potential will soon become evident. Because of the difference in where they live—which is just one ZIP code number apart—one of those babies will grow up to eat healthy food purchased from a supermarket or farmers’ market. He will finish high school, attend college, and live to the age of eighty-two. The other boy will fill up on unhealthy food purchased from a corner liquor or convenience store. He will drop out of high school. And he will die fifteen years before the first.

These are the everyday facts of life in Oakland, California, the third most diverse city in America, but they are not unlike those in many other urban areas across the nation. Food is just one factor, but in recent years, there has been a growing awareness that inequities in food access have a significant impact on children’s education, health, and life expectancy—and that a radically new approach toward food is needed to ensure equity for all schoolchildren.

One of the people leading the effort to create such an approach is Tony Smith, a former San Francisco 49ers football player who is now superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District. Since he took over the district in 2009, Smith has been working on a comprehensive plan to transform Oakland into one of the first “full-service community school districts” in the nation. In Smith’s vision, a full-service community school district weaves together a broad network of services—through government agencies, the business community, foundations, philanthropists, and nonprofits—to level the playing field for all children.

He is, for example, working with the Alameda County Health Department to create school-based health care centers that offer services that range from administering vaccines to counseling children who have lost friends or family members to violence. He is encouraging the local business community to create internships for young people who come from families in which no one has held a job for generations. And he is striving to improve the quality of food Oakland students eat—both in the school cafeteria and at home.

As someone who struggled against the odds himself, Smith is not naïve about the seriousness of the challenges he faces. Oakland, true to its reputation, is a tough place to live. Gang violence, racial tensions, and conflicts between police and residents date back to well before the founding of the Black Panthers there in the 1960s. Oakland suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as a history of inept city government. The school district itself, which was placed under state supervision due to high debt and a record of mismanagement before Smith took over, still faces grave financial burdens and a dropout rate twelve points above the national average.

But the superintendent, who is white, is not only a man with a plan; he is a man with the empathy to champion kids who most need it—in this case, kids of color—and a capacity for the systems thinking that is vital to creating comprehensive change. Because the causes of the inequities facing young students of color are systemic, he says, the solutions need to be as well. This quality of systems thinking, a core dimension of ecological intelligence, enables Smith to recognize the vital role of the school food environment in the education and health of Oakland’s 38,000 students and the community at large.

“To me, it’s not that somehow we will get to the food stuff after everything else,” says Smith, who has a Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Berkeley. “When you move a system, you have to move all of it. That is why school food reform is built into the context of our new strategic plan. It’s about the long-term health and well-being of our students, and it’s about building sustainable systems.”

Smith agrees with the growing consensus among health experts that it is critical to tackle the epidemic of diet-related health problems among young people—and that it makes sense to engage schools in this goal, because students consume an estimated 40 percent of their daily calories at school. But he also recognizes that reforming the school food environment is an opportunity to use the institutional power of schools to address some of the ecological problems—including soil depletion, water scarcity, water and air pollution, and climate change—caused by today’s industrialized food systems. He insists that school food reform is a basic equity issue: If the least-advantaged students are going to have a shot at improving their academic achievement and well-being, he argues, they must be given access to healthy food. As a former professional athlete, after all, he knows first-hand how critical nutrition is to peak performance.

Part 2: In tomorrow’s installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate tell Smith’s remarkable personal story, from struggling child to professional athlete to education visionary.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. In this story, Oakland school Superintendent Tony Smith shares his vision of a “full-service community school district” that provides an array of services to students and their families so that all children have an equal chance to thrive.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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