Fixing School Food - What Helps, What Doesn’t

Fixing School Food - What Helps, What Doesn’t

Lots of people say they want to help improve school food, especially here in San Francisco where good food is worshipped as a deity, and real help is sorely needed. The major barriers to better school food here are well-known - underfunding of school meal programs by the federal government, lack of support from top school leaders, a persistent stigma that keeps many older students from choosing to eat the school meals. There is no central kitchen where meals could be scratch cooked from local food; some schools have no kitchen at all, and those that do are poorly equipped. The Student Nutrition Services department (SNS) is so understaffed that director Ed Wilkins sometimes has to put on an apron and serve meals when a cafeteria worker fails to show up for work.

Grasping the major barriers is easy; understanding how school meal programs work is much more complicated.

It is not like running a restaurant or catering service; it is not like cooking at home. The government regulations are often inscrutable, even moronic, yet must be strictly followed or funding may be withheld. Because there are so many variables from one school or district to another, what is possible in one place may not be possible in another.

Those of us who want to help need to accept that the issue is far more complex than it appears, and that unless we have managed a child nutrition program for years, our beliefs are likely based more on opinion, and possibly wishful thinking, than on fact. It’s hard to help when we don’t even realize how much we don’t know; sometimes it turns out that “helping” doesn’t really help.

The best way to help is not to reinvent the wheel. No one needs any more “studies” of what the challenges are for the school meal program, or “assessments” of how well those challenges are being addressed; all of that is already well known. More helpful would be, for example, efforts to build support for construction of a central kitchen, so that SNS could have complete control over the ingredients, preparation, and quality of school meals.

Or, consider these suggestions for things that would really help improve school food in San Francisco:

First and foremost, the school meal program needs more money. Can anyone help find more funding for SNS so that more essential staff can be hired? SFUSD currently serves about 22,000 lunches a day, but has just 6 people managing the department; Oakland, which serves a similar number of lunches, has 14 comparable managers.

One of the most essential of those managerial positions is the “area supervisor.” Area supervisors are directly responsible for the day-to-day operations at the school cafeterias they oversee. It is their job to deal with the daily disasters that beset the program - malfunctioning ovens, late food deliveries, employees who fail to show up for work - and get the problem fixed promptly.

They can also help build relationships with parents, students and staff at school sites, and work with community partners. Currently SFUSD's SNS has just 2 area supervisors to support 111 sites, while Oakland has 5 to support a similar number of sites; a report recently commissioned by the Food Bank says that SF should have 7. Does anyone have funding available to pay for another area supervisor for SFUSD?

Another useful position for which funding does not exist is an SNS business manager, who could manage contracts, track revenue and expenditures, handle staffing, make sure suppliers get paid in a timely manner, and a myriad of other tasks. This would free the director and assistant director to focus more on the quality of the food and service offered to students, as well as allowing them time to work with community partners, and on long-range planning. Anyone out there want to step up and pay for this?

Other SNS positions that would really help, but which currently lack funding, include someone to do publicity, marketing, and outreach to encourage more students to choose school meals. This person could meet with small groups of interested citizens, explain the school meal program to them, lead tours of a school cafeteria, and show them where additional help is needed. SNS frequently gets requests for this kind of informational site visit, but lacks the staff to accommodate such requests.

Yet another needed position is for a grant writer to seek funding for pilot programs which, if successful, could be rolled out to all schools. Many SNS improvements started as pilots, including salad bars, Grab n Go breakfast, the Point of Sale electronic payment system, and the successful lunch vending machine at Lincoln High School; volunteers working with SNS found the funding to pay for those pilots.

San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and their Families, the Department of Public Health, and the independent San Francisco Food Systems have all been generous funders of pilot programs over the years, and have helped SNS apply for grants, but with an in-house grant writer working even part time, far more money could be accessed to support improved meals. Any volunteers for this?

Staff positions require ongoing funding, but one-time funding would also be extremely helpful. Two essential studies are necessary to move forward with the longstanding SNS dream of a central kitchen to scratch cook meals from fresh ingredients right here in San Francisco. The first is a facilities study, to detail existing conditions and costs of necessary upgrades to school kitchens, as well as the construction cost of the central kitchen.

The second is the business cost study, to determine the cost to staff and run the kitchen once it is built, as well as staffing and operating costs for the school sites serving the food coming out of the central kitchen. Both of these studies should be led by SFUSD, not an outside group, but with SFUSD facing a $30 million deficit, funding for studies is not in the cards.

Want to help, but don't have 6 figures to pay for a facilities study? Many smaller projects to improve the ambiance in school cafeterias could make a big difference in the whole school meal experience for many students. Installing new attention-grabbing electronic signs in school cafeterias could promote consumption of fruits and vegetables, provide nutritional information for students trying to make healthy choices, and introduce students to new foods. Anyone want to donate one to their local high school? Many school cafeterias could use colorful new tables and chairs, but schools can barely afford teachers, and cafeteria decor is not part of the SNS budget.

Other ideas, already vetted by SNS, for community groups or individuals who want to help: Work on reversing the stigma which is still associated with school meals. How about a public service announcement campaign starring local heroes like SF Giants players, promoting the message that “School food is cool”? How about placards on the sides of MUNI buses showing high profile city folk like the Mayor, members of the Board of Supervisors, or hip business leaders, like some of the new social media folk, or local musicians and artists, promoting that message?

Those who feel ready to jump in and get their hands dirty with school food policy should start attending the meetings of the SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee (formerly the Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.) This group writes the district’s Wellness Policy, which is then submitted to the school board for discussion, revision, and approval; there is no quicker and better way to help drive school food reform than by working with this long-established and officially sanctioned group. Want to see kale or quinoa on school lunch trays? Making it part of the Wellness Policy is the first step to making it happen.

Paula Jones, PhD, Director of Food Systems for the SF Department of Public Health, is the new chair of the SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee. As a 9 year veteran of that committee, and someone who has worked closely with SNS for many years, Dr. Jones is one of the most knowledgeable people in the city about school food. She says,

“SFUSD's school meal program is San Francisco's largest public food service program serving some of the city's most vulnerable residents - its children. The current management has done an amazing job of making significant and systemic improvements to the program. We would encourage even more participation from parents and other community members to help support the program by attending the upcoming SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee meetings.”

The next meeting, open to the public, is on August 14th, at 3:30 in the ground floor board room at SFUSD Headquarters, 555 Franklin Street.

There is no getting away from the fact that SNS lacks the budget it needs to operate efficiently. With skimpy funding from the government and a school district already kicking in $2 million extra to help cover expenses, where will additional funding come from?

Some funders may not be comfortable donating money for more nutrition department staff, when their goal is better food; others may feel that SNS should be doing more outreach to the community if they want groups to come forward with funding. But think back to the image of SNS director Ed Wilkins looking very fetching in his apron while helping out in a short-staffed cafeteria.

It would be great if he had the time to do community outreach, but with so little support staff in his office, making sure the kids get fed is always going to trump networking with potential funders. Handling the business end of the operation also has to come before community outreach. More area supervisors and a business manager would free up some time to do that outreach, but without the funding to pay for those positions, Wilkins himself has to be responsible for making sure the ovens are working, the food deliveries are being made, staff is showing up for work, inventory is being done, bills are being paid, supplies and meals are being ordered, meal applications are being processed, money is making it to the bank, paperwork is being filed so that government reimbursement can be collected, regulations are being followed, and a thousand other daily details of keeping the program going.

See the Catch 22 there? Hard to get more funding if you don't do outreach, hard to find time for outreach if there is no funding to pay for more staff.

In a city like San Francisco, where we are willing to pay $14 for a Bibb lettuce salad, or $3.25 for a small cup of customized blend Philz coffee, or $10 for a pound of organic blueberries at the farmer's market, surely there must be an angel willing to come forward and help fund SNS.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.