Located on the west side of Oakland, Calif., The Center is a new facility that develops programs whose goal is to bring together the environment, food and gardens for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
Situated on the site of a middle school that had been closed for several years, The Center provides nearly 30,000 freshly-cooked meals every day for students and families in 77 schools throughout the district.
The facility is made up of a large central kitchen, a culinary arts education center and an urban farm.
The kitchen produces breakfast and lunches for OUSD students and their families.
The culinary arts laboratory classrooms provide career education and training for high school students as well as adult education programs.
The farm is a full-time demonstration garden which also hosts field trips for elementary and middle school students.
In addition, the farm produces all seed starters that are used in the school community gardens throughout the OUSD’s elementary and middle school campuses.
The Center also provides a variety of other programs, from early childhood to young adult, for all of Oakland.
Owned and operated by the school district, The Center was designed by CAW Architects.
With offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, CAW has a “wide-ranging educational portfolio, which spans elementary, secondary and university campus work,” says company principal Brent McClure.
To maximize efficiency, the project was designed as a single building that connects all of the programs and opens them up to the public, he says.
The main kitchen entrance, the classrooms and the farm are organized around a large outdoor, trellised patio, which serves as the central hub to the site.
“Each classroom has a large roll-up door,” said McClure. “The door opens up the classroom to the outdoors and connects the interior learning environments to the outdoor education spaces.”
The classroom has a full-service demonstration and teaching kitchen as well as a second flex-lab classroom the supports The Center’s programming.
The facility also has a large greenhouse, an outdoor kitchen that is equipped with a wood-fired pizza oven, work tables and sinks.
McClure says a number of innovative features to reduce energy consumption and enhance building performance were designed into the project.
They include a C02-based closed-loop refrigeration system, which is more efficient than traditional systems, and a heat-recovery loop that captures the waste-heat produced by the refrigeration unit, which helps heat the building’s (uses less artificial illumination) in all of the most important spaces, and the outdoor trellis was designed to eliminate glare in the classrooms.
The roof is ready for the installation of solar panels.
“In a future phase of the project, enough panels will reduce the energy impact by 50 percent over a typical energy-intensive central kitchen,” said McClure.
Design of The Center was not without its challenges.
“The primary challenge of this project was bringing together the three disparate programs into a single and cohesive design that directly supports the community and the entire Oakland student population, all under incredibly tight budgetary constraints,” said McClure.
Although CAW has designed other culinary arts programs, central kitchens and urban farms, The Center is the first of its kind to combine three programs on a single site to serve a large community.
OUSD director of programs Michelle Oppen, said, “The Center is quite unique in California in its make-up. There are other facilities that have similar aspects of what The Center has, but not all together in one place.”
The Center is not the OUSD’s first food production initiative.
“Before The Center, we served OUSD students for many years through an in-house school food service program out of two school-based central kitchens.”
Urban farming is a relatively new phenomenon and is taking a variety of different forms as it spreads across the U.S.
For example, urban farms were opened in fall 2023 in 60 schools across New York City by New York Sun Works, a nonprofit that builds science labs in urban schools to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
A large tank of water in the back of a Brooklyn classroom was stocked with fish in order to teach the students about ecosystems.
Students can take home some of the produce they grow in the classroom as well as cook with it in the culinary lab next door.
New York Sun Works says its programs have reached more than 120,000 students, with more labs slated for the future.