The Center

Educational Space Benefits the Whole Community in Oakland, California

by Brent McClure, AIA, partner, CAW Architects

Located in the heart of West Oakland, California, The Center is a one-of-a-kind project that marries together a central kitchen, culinary arts education center, and an urban farm designed to support 37,000 students across nearly 100 schools for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).  The multi-dimensional space is dedicated to district-wide food production intended to support health, wellness, and education for the entire school district on a comprehensive four-acre site.  When operating at maximum capacity, The Center’s goal will be to provide nearly 30,000 fresh-cooked meals per day, offering all students healthy meals, with a special emphasis on students who participate in the district’s free and reduced lunch program.

All photos courtesy of Bruce Damonte

         Designed by CAW Architects, Palo Alto, California, a firm that is passionate about creating equity within school environments, the goal was to create a strategic, programmatic solution that would allow for direct connections between teaching areas and professional kitchens under one single roof.  The simple, single-story building, which uses 35% less electricity than comparable structures thanks to extensive daylighting, carbon dioxide-based refrigeration, and waste heat recapture systems, splits the four-acre site between kitchens and loading docks on the west side.  While classrooms, offices, and 1/2 acres of gardens are sited on the east side.  Between the classrooms and gardens, a long, linear trellis with wooden slats shades an interstitial terrace where the indoors and outdoors meet.  Roll-up doors allow the classrooms to open onto the canopied space, allowing a flexible indoor-outdoor learning experience between classroom and farm.

         By centralizing food preparation inside one giant facility, the OUSD can now prepare healthy meals at a larger scale, getting freshly cooked food to more students, more efficiently.  Previously, these efforts were spread across multiple, smaller kitchens throughout the OUSD.  However, the district didn’t want to just create a space for food prep.  It also wanted spaces where students could learn about nutrition, food, health and wellness, science, agriculture, as well as gain professional skills.  Educators will be able to use the raised planting beds in the gardens, designed by Bay Tree Design, Berkeley, California, to teach students about agriculture and nutrition.  Furthermore, the kitchens, located adjacent to the classrooms, will create opportunities for high school students to learn food preparation skills, health, and wellness in a professional facility.

         When initial opening plans were disrupted due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, the OUSD pivoted quickly after being contacted by the Alameda County Community Food Bank.  Despite construction not yet being complete, the OUSD accelerated the build-out to gain temporary occupancy within two weeks, allowing The Center to become a temporary food bank servicing the larger, local community.  Together, the two organizations have worked to share The Center as a collection and distribution site, getting out 3,000-5,000 meals a day to those most impacted by the pandemic. 

         “We are extremely proud to have been part of the team tapped to create an educational venue dedicated to ending systematic food injustice,” said Keith Wainschel, LEED® AP, team project manager, CAW.  “This was only topped by our role in assisting with fast-tracking the project to be operational months ahead of schedule due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  As a true community-based project, The Center has already given back, and will continue to give back, in countless enduring ways for many years to come.”

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