Student Nutrition

I’ve been a leader in the work to expand participation in our district’s student nutrition programs, improve the quality of the food served, and increase overall funding for the program. In 2009, I co-authored (with Commissioner Wynns)  the “Feeding Every Hungry Child” policy for SFUSD, which states that no child will be turned away in the lunch line for lack of ability to pay (some districts refuse to feed children who aren’t qualified for free- and reduced-price lunch and don’t have money to buy a lunch; sometimes districts will offer these children a “meal of shame” like cold cereal rather than the standard hot lunch).  More importantly, the policy holds schools responsible for making sure they qualify as many eligible children as possible for free/reduced price lunches so that Student Nutrition Services can reduce the sometimes considerable cash shortages generated when students take a meal without either paying or being eligible for reimbursement under the Free/Reduced subsidy.

With the help of partners like the City’s Department of Public Health, its Department of Children, Youth and their Families, and the SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee, Student Nutrition Services (SNS) has worked very hard in recent years to improve the quality and nutritional value of the food served. For the most part, meals served in SFUSD cafeterias already meet the higher nutritional standards required under the newly-reauthorized National School Lunch Program (according to a recent report, many California districts are not meeting these standards).

Of course, there is a great deal more to be done. San Francisco is a food mecca, and many people deplore the fact that meals served to students are largely made by a food processor in Illinois, then sent frozen by truck to be reheated at school sites. If San Francisco had a central kitchen or some other cooking operation, meals would be fresher and quality would be better.

For years, SNS Director Ed Wilkins and other concerned stakeholders working on school food have tried to find funding for initiatives like more SNS staff, an expanded breakfast program, and more choices for lunch.  In addition, a recent study funded by the San Francisco/Marin Food Bank  made a number of suggestions for top-priority projects  in addition to the central kitchen/cooking operation idea. Those included:

  • Hiring more area supervisors to improve the functioning of the department and quality control in the cafeterias;
  • Adding an additional menu option and improve staffing at the elementary school level, where most food waste, cash shortages and complaints about quality seem to arise;
  • Introducing universal breakfast in the classroom — currently breakfast is mostly served in school cafeterias before school starts, though some secondary schools have piloted “Grab ‘n Go” programs allowing students to take breakfast with them to consume in the first few minutes of their first period class. To get better participation — and feed more hungry kids so that everyone can concentrate on morning lessons–breakfast in the classroom programs have been recognized as a best practice.

However, in today’s budget environment, implementing any of this is a tall order — especially since the nutrition program already runs at a considerable deficit, projected at $2.2 million in 2012-13. At present, there is no reason to believe the school district will be able to come up with additional funds to further improve meals, so help will have to come from elsewhere.  Longtime school food advocate Dana Woldow has written an excellent analysis of what, in her view, must be done and how community organizations, funders and individuals can help. To me, this is a blueprint for getting involved in advocating for better and more nutritious food for students — the start of a “virtuous cycle” where better-fed and better-nourished students are healthier and better able to concentrate in school, and where more students begin to eat meals at school, boosting the financial health of the program and allowing more investment in quality and options.

Based on the longtime advocacy for these projects by SNS staff and the Food and Fitness Committee, the interest from our new Superintendent, Richard Carranza, and the overall interest in improving school food that I see in the broader community, I think the time is ripe for the district to lead a major initiative on student nutrition.

For background and information on how to get involved, visit Ms. Woldow’s web site: www.peachsf.org.

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