A coalition of organizations has opened its doors and kitchens to make sure no child goes hungry or unsupported for the duration of the Oakland teachers’ strike, now on its sixth day. These “solidarity schools” have popped up throughout the city to assure the basic needs of Oakland’s students and families while supporting its educators.
“Solidarity in that the locations are in solidarity with our ever-loving teachers,” said Pastor Anthony Jenkins, Sr.
Pastor Jenkins heads up one such solidarity school at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church located at 1188 12th St. in West Oakland.
“Our doors will be open supporting teachers and students as long as the strike lasts,” said Jenkins. “If it lasts for a week, if it lasts for a month, if it lasts for a year, our doors will be open. Five days a week,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word.
Taylor Memorial opens its doors to the public 7:30 a.m., but for the volunteers heading up meals, the day starts much earlier. Annette Valentine begins her day around 4 a.m., either out shopping for the day’s menu or warming up the church’s ovens.
“Pastor said, we needed to show up and support our community. And I said, well I’m in,” said Valentine. “We need to feed these babies.”
Valentine is a caterer by trade and runs her own catering company, Done in Love, out of Berkeley. She is also a parishioner of Taylor Memorial and has been heading up the kitchen since the strike began on Feb. 21, feeding between 60 and 80 students a day. And because the church has a large kitchen, Valentine’s crew also prepares and ships up to 200 individually packaged lunches for other solidarity schools and for educators at picket lines.
Although Valentine has no background in academia — “I’m not trained for children. I’m not around little people all the time,” she said — she became deeply personally concerned when she learned the extent to which students rely on schools for more than just education.
“They used a word, ‘food insecurity,’” she said, “and it bothered me so bad.”
“I didn’t know this, that a lot of these kids, the only place that they eat is at school.”
There are about 37,000 OUSD students, and more than 70% percent of them receive a free or reduced-price lunch at school, according to Bread for Ed, a networking service made up of a coalition of teachers, parents and community organizations that has been organizing and directing volunteers to make and distribute food to students and teachers during the strike. During the first two days of the strike, Bread for Ed distributed 8,000 meals to students and teachers throughout the city, not including snacks and other resources it provided to those at picket lines.
Though Taylor Memorial has been working with Bread for Ed, the decision to operate as a solidarity school came from within.
“It was a prayerful process,” said Pastor Jenkins. After prayer and reflection, Jenkins approached Keith Brown the president of the Oakland Education Association and informed him of his support for educators.
When the call went out for volunteers, it was easy for Valentine to step up and pitch in with her professional skills to serve and support her community. Before running her own company, Valentine ran several kitchens for Meals on Wheels in Berkeley, where she “learned how to produce a lot of food on a little bit of time.” Those same principles she now applies to the kitchen at Taylor Memorial.
“Everything comes in fresh in the morning and it goes out the same day and you start all over tomorrow,” she said.
Every student at Taylor receives a hot breakfast and a balanced lunch. The breakfast menu on Tuesday was French toast, turkey sausage, eggs, and student’s choice of organic juice.
“The kids are excited,” said Valentine, “They get out of the cars in the morning ‘Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!’”
“I think that it is important for little children to get real food,” she said. She detailed the previous day’s lunch menu of homemade chili, beans, rice and cornbread. “A lot of kids didn’t know what cornbread was, and that to me is ridiculous.”
For Valentine, the primary aim is to feed Oakland students, but also in that way support the broader community and Oakland’s teachers especially.
“Those teachers deserve every dime they’re asking for and some,” she said.
For Pastor Jenkins, teachers have had a very personal impact on his own life. Jenkins grew up in Oakland, attended the now-closed Santa Fe Elementary located at 54th and Market, and graduated from Skyline High School. As a child, he had a speech impediment. “I absorbed, I was articulate. I just had a problem speaking,” he said. “It was funny to some of the kids, and so I was hurt by that.”
It was his second-grade teacher, Rosalie Wilson, who helped him overcome the social and personal difficulty of his relationship with speech. “While she gave her attention to all the kids, she walked me through the feelings of inadequacy, the feelings of hurt,” he said. He told the story slowly, and with emotion, reflecting the lasting impact of a teacher.
“She taught me how to pronounce my words, she taught me how to read with expression and she loved me,” he said. “And I will never forget that experience.”
“If it wasn’t for her care as a public school teacher, her compassion and passion for what she does, I wouldn’t be interviewing with you now,” he said.
“Letting the teachers feel loved, feel compassion, and my passion as a community and city leader,” said Jenkins. “My passion as a pastor, and my love, that’s important to me. Because I got that from Rosalie Wilson.”
“That was the seed she planted in me. And now our current teachers get to taste the fruit of those seeds she planted for me.”