Tag Archives: nutrition

Recap: school food, the budget, Teach for America and public comment

Board members have a superstition about saying things like “looks like a short meeting tonight,” or “the agenda looks pretty straightforward,” but tonight one  of us must have forgotten and brought on the Long Meeting Jinx. There really isn’t any other reason why tonight’s meeting lasted 4-1/2 hours — especially since there was really only one weighty item for discussion and no more than the usual amount of public comment.

The meeting started with several ceremonial items — a RAVE award (given at every meeting) for a Kindergarten teacher (Mr. Robert) at Flynn; a commendation for the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank (more about them later); and a resolution naming the art room at Dianne Feinstein ES after the late Dan Ryan, a retired administrator and tireless advocate for arts education. New members of the Student Advisory Council were introduced, and then the Parent Advisory Council gave its regular report, updating the Board on its community conversations about Restorative Justice.

Next: public comment. A number of people from Civic Center Secondary school were there to speak on a plan to limit the amount of classroom space at the newly-renovated school, which will be ready to occupy later in the summer.  The dispute settles on whether the academic program needs 14 or 16 classrooms — teachers say they need more space; administrators say every teacher will have a classroom and that more space is needed for Pupil Services, which is being considered as a co-tenant for the building. Everyone agrees that having Civic Center and Pupil Services in the same building will be a good thing, but teachers are concerned that students will not have enough academic space. Parents and community members associated with Martin Luther King MS came to speak to the board about the deteriorating climate at the school; another parent came to discuss the quality of district substitute teachers, which in her experience is low.

Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh then gave the Board an update on the district’s budget, which is pretty much never good. Though the numbers I presented in my last post have not changed much, a few other factors have: first, the Governor issued his May Revise report on May 14, and reported that the state’s budget deficit has grown from $9 billion in January to almost $16 billion. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the chief one is that tax revenues have not grown as much as predicted. Then, the Legislative Analyst weighed in on May 18 that the deficit could be considerably higher than the May Revise, declining to issue a specific number — many speculate $17 billion or more.

The district is looking at a $83 million shortfall at the end of 2013-14 IF no cuts are made in each of the next two years and IF the state manages to pass a tax initiative (more about that in a minute). If no tax initiative passes, the Governor is promising a $5.5 billion cut to education that many are calling “nuclear winter.” (The LAO has proposed an alternative plan that is–in some ways–less drastic; the Governor and Legislature have yet to weigh in on whether they would be willing to enact it). If the “nuclear winter” scenario comes to pass, SFUSD is looking at a $23 million cut in the middle of the 2012-13 school year — there would be few alternatives at that point and 2013-14 would look grim indeed.

That’s why the Governor is going all out to promote his tax plan, which would extend the quarter-percent sales tax increase and raise income taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000 (joint filers earning more than $500,000). While that plan does provide relief to the state budget, the education community has been divided on whether to support the initiative, because it provides no new funding to schools (despite being called the “Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act”). Instead, the initiative would place school funding on firmer footing by paying down budget deferrals (a dangerous gimmick the state has relied upon to “fund” education in recent years) but keep education revenues flat.

An alternative to the Governor’s plan is the “Our Children Our Future” initiative authored and funded by civil rights attorney Molly Munger (it’s also being called the “Munger initiative”). The California State PTA has signed on to this initiative, and there is a lot to like about it if you want to fund schools, because it raises $5 billion in 2012-13 and $10 billion every year after that until the end of 2024. Most of that money goes to schools, except the first four full years, where $3 billion would be diverted to the state’s general fund.

At this weekend’s Delegate Assembly for the California School Boards Association, I and 128 other delegates (out of 201 present) voted to support both initiatives, and I will be bringing a similar recommendation to the school board in the coming weeks. School districts need help now, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s essential that one of the initiatives pass–at this point I’m not too worried about which one. (Just yesterday the state announced that 188 out of 1,000 school districts, representing 2.6 million of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, are either insolvent or close to it.) If both initiatives pass, the courts will sort it out, and most likely the initiative that gets the most votes will take effect. CSBA has prepared a great chart comparing the two initiatives.

On to the main item of the evening: a long-awaited presentation on the results of a study, funded by the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, on the strengths, weaknesses and future opportunities for the district’s student nutrition program.   The study, though critical of many aspects of the district’s current food program, tries to point the way to long- and short-term improvements for the program, which in most years has required a contribution of several million dollars from the district’s general fund just to maintain current levels of quality.

Yeah, OK, if your child is at an elementary school and receiving a reheated meal covered in plastic, you’re not thrilled with either the appeal or the overall freshness of the meal. Most of the district’s hot entrees are prepared in the Midwest, frozen, and then transported by truck to San Francisco, where they are reheated at the school site (with rethermalization ovens, not microwaves) to be served to students. Reheated rotini pasta bake isn’t the most appetizing thing. However, the pasta is whole wheat and the meal is served with fresh fruit — a decade ago, SFUSD kids would have gotten a soggy cheeseburger on a white Wonder bun and fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. It’s progress, however far we still need to go.  I should also mention that my 6th grader thinks the school meals in middle school are a huge improvement over what she was served in elementary school. She likes the Asian-themed entrees, which are served in a Chinese-takeout container.

The consultants who researched the SFUSD meal program for the study strongly urged that the biggest single thing the district should do right now is add area supervisors to increase quality and make sure the district is getting reimbursed for every meal served to free- or reduced-price lunch students, in order to maximize participation and revenues for the program.  Other immediate and lower-cost improvements they recommended included setting a district-wide policy for recess-before-lunch in the elementary schools (a change that has been shown in many districts to encourage kids to eat more and return to class calmer and more attentive after the lunch period); as well as instituting breakfast in the classroom at all elementary schools, starting with the Superintendent’s Zone.  (Your mother probably told you how important it is to eat a good breakfast; breakfast in the classroom ensures that all kids, even those whose parents barely get them to school at all, start the day with breakfast.)  Instituting a choice of entrees in elementary school would likely improve participation as well, the consultants said.

Over the longer-term, the consultants said our district should start cooking more meals locally, because that would ensure fresher ingredients and more control over quality and presentation. However, the consultants recommended taking smaller steps toward this major goal — tackling the lower-hanging fruit first and then going for the big money needed to bring back school kitchens district-wide.

The Food Bank funded the study because it sees its mission as supporting any effort to end hunger, and school meal programs are the biggest opportunity (after food stamps) to feed hungry kids. And despite the dedicated and tireless efforts of the district’s Student Nutrition Services, there are still kids in SFUSD who would rather go hungry than eat the school meal. The district–and state and Federal authorities–have an obligation to do whatever they can to continue to encourage every hungry student to take a school-funded meal, because proper nourishment is crucial to students’ physical and intellectual development.

The study is several big books of exhibits, analysis and appendices, and as far as I know is not yet available electronically either from the Food Bank or the school district. But for those who really want to “dig in” to this subject further, I will post a link as soon as I have one.

Oops, I also mentioned Teach for America in the headline of this post. There was a lengthy discussion of a $51,000 payment to TFA for coaching and support of existing teachers, and recruiting 10 more. Those 10 are only being recruited for high-need, hard to fill areas where existing teachers are not receiving layoff notices. Some Board members have issues with the “teach two years then go to graduate school” model that TFA promotes, but this is the final year of  the district’s contract with the organization. Since the 10 teachers to be recruited in this final year will not displace any laid off or consolidated teacher, Board members approved the contract, 6-1 (Wynns voting no).

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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.

Cafeteria boycott is the wrong target

I just came across this news story from Boston, about a planned cafeteria boycott by students at suburban Medford High School. Students contend that the lunches they are served are unhealthy and that they are served meat that supermarkets are not allowed to sell.

The district Superintendent disputes these claims, according to the report:

Federal law requires the district to take more precautions than commercial markets when preparing and serving food, and lunch menu selections have less sodium, less fat, and fewer additives than the same items at the grocery store.

And, he said, the menu offers no fried food, no snack-cakes or other unhealthy desserts, and very few processed meats.

For $2.85, students get their choice of a pizza, salad, hot entree, or sandwich to accompany a fruit and a vegetable, he said.

This sounds a lot like the menu here in San Francisco, where we have eliminated high-fat entrees like corn dogs and taco pockets, and replaced them with meals that are lower in fat, featuring whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Still, our students also complain about the quality of the food (and, ironically, about the small portion sizes — shades of Annie Hall.)   The meal prices in Medford are comparable to ours as well (our full-price high school meal is $3).

Could the food be better? Yes, but not without significant increases in funding. That’s why it’s frustrating to see student advocacy like the Medford boycott aimed at the wrong target. I don’t know much about Medford, but if it’s anything like SFUSD, such an effort would only end up hurting students — because it would result in wasted food (which means wasted money that otherwise could be spent on something else). Additionally, in SFUSD too many of our students have no other reliable source of nutritious food. For those students, participating in a boycott simply means they are forgoing needed calories.

So if a boycott is a lousy idea, what steps could students or others take to improve the quality of school nutrition in SFUSD? Right now there is a golden opportunity to increase the funding that districts in high-cost areas (like San Francisco) receive to serve meals to students, as the Child Nutrition Act will be reauthorized in 2010. Click here for information (including sample letters) on writing to members of Congress urging them to increase the amount of funding for student nutrition.

Persnickety rules, heavy-handed penalties

The Chronicle has done a really wonderful job getting to the back story behind the state’s decision last spring to withhold $1.5 million a month in reimbursements to SFUSD’s school lunch program for failure to follow required rules for participating in the program.

These rules, set by the USDA, are arcane, persnickety, and (as we have found out) non-negotiable. For example:

Teachers or lunchroom staff members are prohibited from handling the lunch cards or pushing the touch screens for the children. They are also not allowed to turn in a manual check-off sheet based on who they thought in advance would be taking a lunch.

In San Francisco, inspectors said school staff violated federal policies in each system.

The rules also say that lunchroom staff must see to it that a child serves him or herself at least three food items. No adult is allowed to hand a child, no matter how young, a tray of food.

Inspectors said at some San Francisco schools it went unnoticed when children took only one or two food items. That was another mark against the district.

Are you kidding me? At most schools, there are only a few adults staffing the cafeteria line. They’re supposed to make sure every child takes three items but not hand them the food? Oh, yes. The USDA (and the California Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division, which enforces the USDA regulation) is deadly serious. So serious that last April they decided their findings were “egregious” enough to justify withholding $1.5 million a month in funds we would normally be reimbursed for serving our students free- and reduced-price meals. In case you weren’t keeping track, the amount withheld will top $10 million as of this month.

It should be said that the problems are with training and compliance at the school sites, not with the nutrition program administrators, and the penalties have nothing to do with the quality of the food. A commenter on one blog said something along the lines of “if people can’t follow the rules, they should be fired.” OK, let’s just fire the principals – who in the course of  a day are responsible for student safety and discipline, their school budgets, reams of paperwork that must be submitted to the central office, overseeing their teaching staffs and acting as instructional leaders, meeting with parents, oh, and making sure the bus isn’t late and that parents aren’t blocking driveways in the neighborhood . . . but shame on them if they don’t notice that children only took two out of the required three items in the lunch line!

But improve we must, and improve we will. Principals have gone through required training and school staffs are urged to familiarize themselves with the rules and make sure they follow them to the letter from here on out. Bottom line: the USDA gets to make the rules and they get to make us follow them. It’s strange, because with $2.68 to spend on each lunch (after overhead and labor, only about a dollar goes to the actual cost of the food) I don’t really see freeloaders breaking down the doors to get a free lunch they aren’t entitled to. But that’s the ultimate intent of the persnickety regulations: to make sure we aren’t giving away food to children  who could pay for it.

If you think this is unfair (and a ridiculous waste of our time and money), I urge you to make your feelings known to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Our Federal representatives are the people with the power to help USDA see that perhaps these rules should make more sense and be easier for beleaguered schools to follow.

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:

I read the news today . . .

The Chronicle is in high dudgeon over the school board’s slow pace in reinstating JROTC.  But the editorial says that our March 24 meeting adjourned without any action being taken on the controversial program. That’s essentially accurate, but not exactly true. The resolution to reinstate JROTC was introduced for first reading, and under school board rules, an item introduced for first reading receives minimal public comment (typically five minutes or less) and is referred to committee without the board taking any action.

This is what happened to the JROTC resolution co-sponsored by Commissioner Wynns and myself. The item was introduced, President Maufas allowed proponents and opponents each five minutes to offer comment on the item, then referred it to three committees: Personnel, Budget and Curriculum. I’m assuming the resolution will be considered at the next meeting of each committee and return to the full Board sometime in May.

* * *

It also appears that Berkeley Unified (my alma mater) will need to find a way to keep funding their nationally-recognized school lunch program now that they have exhausted their three-year grant from the Chez Panisse foundation. What has been done in Berkeley deserves accolades, no question, since it challenges all school districts to find ways to improve the nutritive value and overall appeal of meals served to students. But this is not easy stuff, as anyone who listened to the discussion of the “Feeding Every Hungry Child” resolution last Tuesday evening understands. And it should be noted that Berkeley Unified has a couple of advantages, financially, which have allowed it to move faster on improving quality than many other districts:

  • Berkeley charges more for lunches than San Francisco does;
  • They get more funding — prior to passage of Prop 13, Berkeley voters passed a parcel tax to help pay for better school food; and as a result, post-Prop 13, their school district is entitled to receive from the state an additional revenue stream called “Meals for Needy Pupils”, which increases each year and is expected to be about $1.33 for each meal served to low income students in 2008-09;
  • The Chez Panisse Foundation has provided significant subsidies — these have allowed Berkeley to spend more on developing local suppliers of fresh ingredients and organic produce and also to build a central kitchen where meals can be cooked from scratch;
  • Berkeley’s Board of Education has agreed to kick in significant funds to subsidize their student nutrition program this year — the Chronicle reports $250,000 – $350,000 in additional monies, for a district of 9,000 students. In San Francisco, that amount would be proportionately much higher.

* * *

Hat tip to Sweet Melissa for reporting that Fiona Ma has dropped the P.E. credit component of A.B. 223, the bill that would order us to reinstate JROTC. Instead, she’s become a co-author of A.B. 351, which expands the options school districts have for offering P.E. credit. (Or “dangerously waters down the P.E. standards,” depending on which of my emails you are reading).

Feeding every hungry child

Last night the Board also passed a resolution co-sponsored by Commissioner Wynns and I entitled “Feeding Every Hungry Child in SFUSD.” For years, we’ve had an unofficial policy of feeding any child who showed up in the lunch line, whether or not they had money to pay for a lunch and whether or not they had turned in an application qualifying them for a free- or reduced-price lunch.  This is a pragmatic as well as moral policy, since hungry children cannot learn. But it has turned into an increasingly expensive practice.

No one wants to stop feeding hungry children; nor do we want to offer  a highly stigmatizing “meal of shame” to children who cannot pay or those who have not turned in a meal application that qualifies them for a reimbursed meal.  But our “cash shortages”–the amount of money we should be able to collect either through cash payments or reimbursements but don’t –have more than doubled in the past five years. And when cash shortages rise, Student Nutrition Services has no choice but to cut back on the quality, quantity and variety of food served to our students.

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