Category Archives: nutrition

Why I support the sugary beverage tax

Last week, you might have read that Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced a proposal to tax sugary beverages (defined as drinks with 25 or more calories that have added sugary sweeteners and are less than 50 percent fruit or vegetable juice) sold in the City and County of San Francisco.  If approved by a majority of Supervisors, the proposal will go to the voters in November 2014, and since it is a new tax, it will require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Supervisors Eric Mar, Malia Cohen and John Avalos have also been working on similar measures, and they are working with Supervisor Wiener to craft a joint proposal that all of their colleagues will support. Because the stakes are so high — both in terms of the support needed and because of the public health crisis represented by over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages –I’ve decided it’s important to pledge my personal support for their efforts NOW, even before a final proposal is approved for the ballot. Two other California cities, Richmond and El Monte, have tried and failed to enact similar measures — amid an onslaught of money spent by beverage manufacturers to defeat them. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt at an outright ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces has been blocked in the courts.

Consider these facts:

  • Since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has tripled nationwide. As recently as 2010, nearly a third of children and adolescents in San Francisco were obese or overweight.
  • Sugary foods are bad enough for health, but sugary beverages are even more extreme in their health effects when consumed regularly. These beverages, though they can contain hundreds of calories in a serving, do not signal “fullness” to the brain. Studies show that they flood the liver with high amounts of sugar in a short amount of time. This “sugar rush” over time leads to fat deposits that cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.
  • Sugary beverages represent, on average, 11 percent of daily calories consumed by children in the U.S. A recent survey found that California teenagers are consuming more sugary beverages
  • One in three children born today will develop Type II diabetes in their lifetime if sugary beverage consumption does not decline.
  • Diseases connected to sugary beverages disproportionately impact minorities and low-income communities. According to Head Start of San Francisco, 18 percent of 3-4 year olds enrolled in its programs are obese.
  • UCSF researcher Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo has calculated that even a one-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could cut sugary beverage consumption by 10 percent — with corresponding reductions in future cases of diabetes , obesity and heart disease, as well as the cost of treating them. Other research has established that spending $1 on nutrition education saves $10 in future health care costs.

I have two teens, and I know how hard it is to control teenage eating habits once they have a little independence and spending money. Eating habits and tastes are formed at a young age, and I’m forever grateful to my mother for setting a nutrition-conscious example I’ve been able to (more or less) follow with my own children. I also know, as a school board member, how important it is for kids to have enough healthy food so that they can learn at their highest potential.

Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal for the November 2014 ballot would create a two-penny per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, with the proceeds dedicated to nutrition, physical activity, and health programs in public schools, parks, and elsewhere.

I fully support the tax as an effective strategy to drive down consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, increase access to and expand physical activity programs, and expand health nutrition education.  Much like cigarette taxes did to drive down rates of smoking and increase public awareness of the dire health consequences, a soda tax will help reduce consumption and increase the growing public awareness of the negative health impact sodas have on growing and adult bodies.

We will be reading and hearing much more about the sugary beverage tax in the months to come. I hope I can count on other parents and child advocates to support this measure — it’s time for San Francisco to take a strong stand and create disincentives to purchasing and consuming a product that represents a serious health challenge for our children.

P.S. I know it’s been quite a while since I blogged — working full time has really cut into the amount of time I have available late at night to write and post updates from the Board meetings. After tomorrow’s Board meeting I will have some breathing room to catch up. As always, there has been a lot happening! 

A revolution in SFUSD school food

If you live in San Francisco, a revolution is coming to a school cafeteria near you  . . .  Revolution Foods, that is.   Tonight, the Board voted unanimously (6-0, with Commissioner Mendoza absent) to award Oakland-based Revolution Foods with an 18-month contract worth $13.5 million  to provide pre-cooked, pre-plated fresh meals (mostly breakfasts and lunches) to students in SFUSD.

This is big news for so many reasons:

  • The contract represents a shift in attitude towards student nutrition. It calls for fresh, not frozen entrees, and specifies that meals must be served to students within 24 hours of being prepared.  If you accept (which I do) that fresh food = higher quality, then this requirement should bring about a huge improvement in the appeal of meals served to students. In many districts, improving the quality of meals has led to modest improvements in participation. What I hope is that this step will begin a “virtuous cycle” of  increasing participation leading to better financial stability for the food program leading to better quality leading to even higher participation.
  •  The contract also represents an increased financial commitment to school meals in San Francisco. District officials told the Board that the school district is paying its current vendor $1.79 per lunch for elementary school students (up from the $1.59 per elementary lunch the district paid in 2011-12). Revolution’s bid for the new contract came to $1.95 per elementary lunch. Revolution was also the lowest bidder. The current vendor, Preferred Meal Systems of Illinois, bid $2.26 per elementary lunch for the same terms. Still,  the bottom line is that the district will now be paying more per meal than it has in the past. In my reasoning (and one of the reasons I supported the new contract), we also will get more for our money.
  • Finally, the contract also represents a huge increase in Revolution’s daily meal production in Northern California — according to co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Kirsten Tobey, the company is currently producing 33,000 lunches a day in its Oakland kitchens; with the addition of the San Francisco Unified account, it will have to produce at least 22,000 more lunches each day.  Even for one of the nation’s fastest-growing companies, this will be a big lift for Revolution, but Ms. Tobey assured the Board the company can handle it. She said Revolution has already begun increasing refrigeration capacity and is alerting suppliers that their orders will be increasing as well.

Revolution’s foods will start appearing in SFUSD cafeterias on Monday, Jan. 7, the first day of school following the Winter break (and it’s a good thing, too, as sources tell me there was no backup plan if the Board had turned down the contract).  Talk about working without a (hair)net.  Once they’ve had a week or so to settle in, let me know what you think!

Dec 11 meeting recap: Has it really been a month?

UPDATE: The Board will take up the Revolution Foods meal service contract at a Special Meeting on Monday evening, Dec. 17. The Special Meeting will start directly following the previously-agendized Buildings & Grounds Committee, scheduled for 6 p.m.  that evening. 

As I noted in last month’s meeting recap, SFUSD routinely cancels the second Board meeting in November and the second Board meeting in December. So we haven’t had a meeting in a month, and it’ll be another month before we meet again. So you’d think there would be a lot of business on the agenda, right? Not really, as it turned out. It was Norman’s last regular meeting before he is  sworn in as Supervisor for District 7 — Commissioners expressed appreciation for his work on the Board and all of us feel sure we will be seeing lots of Norman after he moves to City Hall.  At the end of the meeting, staff, Commissioners and one Commissioner-elect posed for a family photo:

Normans last meeting cropped

Unfortunately, all the news that was going to happen at last night’s meeting got canceled, so while I have every expectation that the proposed school meal contract with Revolution Foods will pass the Board, we’ll have to wait a bit longer (looks like Dec. 17, but not sure yet). In the meantime, here’s the Invitation for Bid from the school district (wonk alert) which tells you the terms the successful bidder had to meet. Good stuff (for super wonks there is even more info here — scroll down to “Student Nutrition Meal Services”).

And if you are really motivated, here are some more things to study up on for next month:

  • Commissioner Fewer and outgoing Commissioner (Supervisor-elect) Yee introduced a local hire resolution that has many worthy provisions but is sure to ignite some sparks with our Building Trades unions — stay tuned for that to come up for a Board vote and lots of debate in January. 
  • Charter school annual space requests have been submitted and the district’s response is due in early February. Prop 39 requires school districts to offer charters “reasonably equivalent” space to similarly situated district-managed schools.
  • The state budget is still very much at issue for 2013-14 even though Prop 30 passed. The district expects to start its own budget process early next year and we expect to have to cut.  Even though the state will eventually have more money, it will be slow to materialize and make a difference for local school districts.
  • City support for credit recovery and additional support for the Classes of 2014 and 2015 will remain a hot topic. In recent weeks, this issue has been very much in the news because the school district has acknowledged that many students in the current sophomore and junior classes are behind on the credits and/or course requirements they need to graduate under the new A-G graduation policy. Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors passed, by a vote of 7-4, a supplemental $2.2 million budget allocation requested by Supervisor Kim to support the district’s action plan for addressing the problem of large students who are short on credits. However, there are a few more hoops this request has to go through (with a possibility that Mayor Lee will veto it) so stay tuned for future developments.

I’m also excited to announce that the Board members elected in November will be sworn in at a ceremony on January 4, 2013 at Tenderloin Community Elementary School (627 Turk St. at Van Ness) at 6 p.m. The public is invited — please come to see me, Sandra Lee Fewer, Jill Wynns and Matt Haney sworn in on that date. The first meeting of the new Board and our annual leadership elections will occur on Tuesday, January 8 at 6 p.m. in the Board Room at 555 Franklin Street. 

In the meantime, have a very happy and healthy holiday season. The blog will be on hiatus until January 3.

Card swipe system brings equity to SFUSD lunches

Good piece in BeyondChron today on the improvements our “point-of-sale” (POS) card swipe system will bring to school lunches at the middle- and high-school levels:

It is heartening to see that even in the face of one of the largest budget disasters in recent memory, facing a two year deficit of $113 million, the SFUSD is now piloting a new lunch setup – called the Super Choice Menu – aimed at banishing the stigma and removing the barriers keeping all students from having all choices available to them.
The Super Choice Menu offers several lunch options in the cafeteria, and half a dozen other choices in the former snack bar, but all choices are complete meals, not snacks, and all of them are available to all students. Standing in one lunch line or the other is no longer an indicator of a student’s financial situation – anyone can go to any line and get lunch.

In other words, the POS system makes it possible to have paid- and free/reduced lunch students standing in the same line, and making the same lunch choices. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation (from a middle-scholer’s perspective)  of having to stand in the free/reduced lunch line while your friends stand in the paid line. Many would rather skip lunch and go hungry rather than reveal their status. The POS system represents a huge improvement that will also allow us to offer better food choices to every student.

Paper plates for Pelosi!

paper_pelosiAdvocates for improving school lunches have come up with a novel and artistic advocacy campaign: ask children to send a message to Speaker Pelosi!

Volunteer to become a school coordinator for the SF School Food Coalition’s inaugural campaign, Paper Plates for Pelosi!

This year (or early next), Congress will decide how much money to allocate to the National School Lunch Program. More money means better food for kids, plain and simple. Our goal is to remind Speaker Nancy Pelosi how much her leadership on this issue count. We know that children deserve improved school food in order to be healthy and to be better students. What better messengers than the kids themselves? All of the plates will be hand-delivered to Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco office. [Editorial comment from your BOE representative: Currently, San Francisco schools receive $2.68 in reimbursement for each meal we serve to students who are qualified for free or reduced price lunch. Once overhead and labor costs are taken out, we have less than a dollar per student to pay for actual food.  Here's the message we need Washington to hear: First, high cost areas like San Francisco need a higher reimbursement rate so that we can afford better food; Second, the entire school lunch program needs a more realistic level of funding! ]

Parents! Ask teachers at your school to do a classroom art activity decorating a paper plate with two
simple messages to Speaker Pelosi. Any teacher who submits entries from 15 or more students will be entered into a drawing to win a $75 VISA gift card.

Teachers! Make this paper plate art and letter-writing project a classroom activity. Ask all of your students to let Speaker Pelosi know how important healthier food is to their education.

All plates need to be returned to the school coordinator by November 6, 2009.

The top 13 entries – our Baker’s Dozen – will be turned into a poster and sent to California’s Congressional delegation, First Lady Michelle Obama, and President Obama! All paper plates will be hand-delivered to Speaker Pelosi’s Distirct Office in San Francisco.

Contact Lena Brook at sfschoolfood “at” gmail.com for more information, to volunteer and receive paper plates for your school!

And for inspiration, watch this lovely video on how school food could be improved:

NY Times: Bringing back cooking to school kitchens

Kim Severson of The New York Times has a good article in today’s paper about the growing desire to serve students scratch-cooked food rather than defrosted pre-packaged lunches:

More than 80 percent of the nation’s districts cook fewer than half their entrees from scratch, according to a 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

The slide didn’t happen overnight. As many American families stopped cooking and began to rely on prepared and packaged food, so did the schools. It became cheaper to cut skilled kitchen labor, eliminate raw ingredients and stop maintaining kitchens.

“In school food 30 or 40 years ago, they roasted turkeys and did all of these things,” said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of the Office of School Support Services.

“We all recognize we want to be scratch cooking again, but we have some challenges to get there.”

In San Francisco Unified (and many other districts), those challenges include aging, ill-equipped kitchens in schools — and many schools without kitchen facilities at all. People have begun talking about adding funding for a central kitchen–probably upwards of $20 million to build and equip–to the next school bond issue proposal, but that’s somewhat premature until we can figure out what kind of facility we need, the kind of staffing it will require, and what resources would be needed to deliver and serve centrally-cooked fresh meals at every school. Studying that issue would cost money (maybe $50,000) that I can’t justify spending in this budget environment — not when it means taking resources away from the classroom.  There is a group of parents and advocates working on getting a grant to do such a study, however, so email me at rachel “at” rachelnorton.com if you are interested in joining this work.

But the biggest challenge is utterly ignored in today’s NY Times piece: the woefully small reimbursement school districts get for serving free- or reduced-price lunches to students — now set at $2.68 per meal nationwide. It’s awfully hard to serve anyone a fresh, nutritious meal for $2.68, particularly with union labor, and particularly in high-cost areas like San Francisco. Some groups are campaigning for a dollar a meal increase in the reimbursement rate, but realistically, we’d need something like $5 per meal to serve fresh, wholesome food cooked locally.

Would it make sense to raise the price of our meals to $5 now and eat (pardon the pun) the differential between the Federal reimbursement rate and the cost of the meal? Well, more affluent districts have done that, mainly because their small population of free- or reduced-price students make that particular budget encroachment a manageable amount of money. And many of those same districts resort to the “meal of shame” when students who haven’t qualified for a free- or reduced-price meal can’t produce the money to pay full price — we have rightly decided NOT to single out children who are hungry but can’t pay for lunch, but that costs us more. So it doesn’t make financial sense for us to raise our meal prices because of the huge amount we’d have to subsidize to do it, and without the central kitchen and other resources in place to actually provide a meal that parents would be willing to pay $5 for.

Update: I ran this post by the incomparable Dana Woldow, who knows everything there is to know about school food. I added some edits (above), and her comments (below) on the idea of raising the paid price of a meal to $5 and “eating” the difference:

SUICIDE! About 85% of the kids eating in the caf are free or reduced; of the approx. 15% who are on paid status, only about 40% ever pay. So it would mean HUGE deficits for SNS that would make the current $2.8 million look like chump change. Plus even though presumably the scratch cooked lunch would be tastier, there is no guarantee that kids who currently bring lunch from home would switch to getting lunch at school.

Students want better school food!

Baseball Rodent Productions (aka Max Schreiber and Dana Woldow) and assorted SFUSD students (including Board of Education student delegate Tristan Leder) have  done it again with a really well-crafted advocacy video to be shown at a national convention of food writers and slow food advocates next month. See below:

At issue: the ridiculously low reimbursement rate the Federal government gives public schools under the National School Lunch Program — a little over $2 per meal. As Ed Wilkins, SFUSD’s Director of Student Nutrition Services says in the video, after labor and overhead are paid, only about a dollar is left to go to the cost of food. The video offers one view of what a lunch program funded at $5 per meal (with a not insignificant additional investment in a central cooking kitchen) could look like for students.

(Full disclosure: I rounded up a group of 4th graders for some of the voice overs and arranged for a second grade class to draw pictures of healthy lunches).