Transforming Food Systems: An Interview with Barbara Jellison, West Contra Costa Unified School District

by | May 18, 2021 | Food, Justice

This past year, Barbara Jellison, Food Service Director, West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), has been creatively curating food boxes for students in need of meals amid pandemic-caused school closures. Her forward thinking in partnership with Conscious Kitchen has allowed for 40 new organic vendors to literally transform the school food system in West Contra Costa County, California.

The food box program, funded by federal and state reimbursements, replaced in-school meals for the rising number of families with children under age 18 in need during the pandemic. 66.5% of WCCUSD students qualify for and rely on free-and-reduced school meals.

In October 2020, Jellison began adding whole produce to her boxes instead of prepackaged offerings. Then, starting in November, she enlisted the help of the Conscious Kitchen team to transition the conventional food offerings to USDA certified organic. Since then, WCCUSD has served 5 million pounds of organic food, added 6.5 million dollars to local economies, and assisted families in providing 12 million meals. 

We recently sat down with Barbara to discuss the unprecedented food supply transformation that WCCUSD has undergone, challenges she has faced, and what keeps her motivated.

If you were to explain this transformation at West Contra Costa Unified to another food service director or outside observer, how would you describe the unprecedented work you are accomplishing?
We’re always trying to offer the best meals to our students. For us, much of our journey happened by accident. I believe that all food service directors are looking to improve their programs and give the best they can to the students. We started last year (when the pandemic hit) with pre-packaged items bagged up five times a week. Then we added the fresh, uncut produce for families to prepare at home. Then we added proteins and whole grains in the boxes. Each box contains the equivalent of 28 meals per child per week. With the support of waivers, we’re in compliance with the USDA and are able to increase our number of new vendors and to test their products.  

Can you talk a little about how community relates to transformation? Why must we rely on our communities in order for massive transformation to occur?
Well, food service is set up to support the community. I also think the pandemic has added the need for community. When everything shut down, the need was high from families and kids that relied on school meals. And therefore the need was also high for the food service department.

It takes all of us to be able to work together to make a greater difference than we would if we’re alone. If we didn’t have the support of other vendors, we would probably only be serving five or ten percent of the meals that we’re serving now. In addition, we helped prevent vendors from having to lay off staff, and then they’re able to hire more people and provide us with a higher quality product for our families. It truly takes a village to get what we’re doing, done. The world is a village and we’re a small part of it, but all of us working together makes the world a better place. 

When you get up in the morning, what keeps you inspired and motivated to keep doing the work you’re doing?
I think most food service directors are passionate about what they do. I mean, I love food. I  owned my own restaurant prior to working for the school district. I used to work in top restaurants in New York City and we served the highest quality meals, but at a price. Then you go into school food service and your price point is much smaller. But at the same time, I want to serve the same quality meal that I served in those restaurants, to our kids.

Like I said before, it takes a village. If I was alone and had to do this, it would be overwhelming. But everybody’s on board. If I didn’t have a great team and support staff, and if the district wasn’t on board, none of this would work. My job takes endless collaborations and partnerships. For example, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without Conscious Kitchen and their support for the program. For the last 20 years, it’s been extremely small steps. So to be able to see the momentum increase by 100% over the last year has been really inspiring.

What has been your biggest challenge for you in figuring out how to transform this food system?
It’s always been a challenge. The food system in schools has been in place for a long time. There are particular food companies across the nation that are involved with school districts and specifically manufacturer for them. These companies understand the specifications, needs, and the requirements of food districts. This current system is very difficult to break away from.

Not only that, but there’s so many layers when it comes to working with a government agency. And, you know, we are a government agency, so not everybody wants to partner with us. When you look at the image of school food services it hasn’t always been the best. 

That brings me to the USDA waivers that we have now. With them we’ve been able to work with new organic suppliers and often smaller, local companies. Normally, there are strict USDA guidelines for bidding and procurement. Because of distribution problems and lack of product availability at the start of the pandemics, the waivers were put in place. This has allowed us to elevate our program to source and serve more fresh, local, organic items to our families.   

Thinking more broadly about transformations in general, what advice would you give to others?
You can plan as much as you want, but I think it’s grabbing an opportunity when it’s there and then just going with it. For me, up until October I thought “we’re doing great, we’re serving a lot of meals, but something’s missing. I couldn’t figure out what. Then I realized, because of our relationship with Judi and Conscious Kitchen and having the USDA waivers, we had the opportunity to truly create change.”

To read more about the West Contra Costa Unified transformation and Barbara Jellison, click here.

Ella Fesler

Ella Fesler

Ella is a rising third year at the University of Virginia studying Global Environments and Sustainability with a minor in Public Policy. Her interest in sustainability took off when she was a finalist for Turning Green's Project Green Challenge in 2017. At the moment, Ella is particularly interested in creating sustainable and equitable food systems for all.