A New Tale of Two Cities

A New Tale of Two Cities

If A and B are similar in some respects, does it follow that they are similar in all respects? Two school districts are located less than 12 miles apart; they are of similar size, and have similar percentages of low-income kids. Their school meal programs operate at the same number of school sites, serve the same number of lunches, and receive the same federal payment for meals served. Both programs are managed by experienced and well-respected nutrition department directors who have spent virtually their entire professional lives in food service. Since Program A is able to operate at break even, does it follow that Program B should also?

A recent study of San Francisco Unified School District’s student nutrition department, commissioned by the SF Food Bank, stated “SFUSD and Oakland Unified [OUSD] had roughly the same revenues in 2010-11 – $15M (not including SFUSD’s $2.7M loss), but Oakland operates at financial break even.”

Perhaps comparisons are inevitable when districts of similar size are located so close to each other; but is it really a fair comparison, or more of a false analogy?

There is more to understanding what it costs to run a school meal program than demographics. Just a few of the many factors that can vary from district to district, or even from school to school, and which complicate comparisons, are labor costs, policies on allowing students to charge meals, and whether the campuses are open or closed. To find out just how comparable Oakland and San Francisco really are, I asked the experts – OUSD’s student nutrition director Jennifer LeBarre, and SFUSD’s counterpart, Ed Wilkins.

The most striking difference between OUSD and SFUSD is the cost of labor. In Oakland, cafeteria workers belong to the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees union (AFSCME); wages run from $9.65 to $11.71 an hour for regular employees, with substitute workers receiving $8.80 an hour.

In San Francisco, cafeteria workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); wages, reflecting SF’s higher cost of living, range from $14.10-$27.71 per hour; substitute workers receive $14.10 per hour. Full benefits for those qualifying add about 44% in both districts.

The contract between AFSCME and OUSD allows the use of non union labor, including parent volunteers, for any shift of less than three hours; there is no such provision in the contract between SEIU and SFUSD. OUSD is also able to hire students 14 years of age and older. LeBarre told me, “We pay them minimum wage and they typically work for 1-1 1/2 hours. They serve, clean dishes, work POS [electronic payment system], basically everything except cook.”

Oakland and San Francisco spend roughly similar percentages of their budget on labor and benefits. Labor and benefits represent about 43% of OUSD's nutrition department expenses. SFUSD spends about 36% on its own labor; about another 4% is included in the meal contract for warehouse labor, including dividing up meals into their individual school deliveries, according to SFUSD's Wilkins, bringing the SFUSD labor and benefits total to about 40% of expenditures.

The lower salaries in Oakland mean that even though labor costs represent similar portions of each district's expenditures, Oakland is getting far more hours of labor for their money. These additional hours enable Oakland to do more time-consuming scratch cooking, and more on site food assembly, than SFUSD can afford to do.

Every day, in every cafeteria in America, a few kids show up in the lunch line not qualified for free or reduced price lunch, but with no money to pay for their meal. Many school districts do feed these kids something, although some offer only a “meal of shame” of a cold cheese sandwich, or a bowl of cereal. Others allow students to charge at least a few meals, and then try to collect the outstanding balance from parents.

Official OUSD lunch policy states that students not qualified for free or reduced price meals may only “charge” a meal three times, after which they will be cut off until the family begins paying for meals. LeBarre explained that this policy, dating back to 2002, "is not always enforced and quite frankly not what we want to do as a district so we are in the process of changing it." For the period from August 2011 through April 2012, OUSD's unpaid meal charges totaled about $87,000, she said.

SFUSD has a long history of feeding every child who comes through the lunch line, regardless of ability to pay, and in 2009 the SF Board of Education passed the Feeding Every Hungry Child policy ensuring all students be fed. However, this comes at a cost; for August 2011 through April 2012, SFUSD’s unpaid meal charges were well in excess of $300,000, says SFUSD nutrition director Ed Wilkins.

As a supporter of feeding hungry kids, not embarrassing them with a meal of shame, I believe that SFUSD’s policy is the right thing to do, and clearly OUSD’s LeBarre would like to move in that direction too, but for now, the financial hit her department takes for unpaid meals is only about 25% of SFUSD's loss.

Some people who attended school prior to the mid 1970’s are surprised to learn that many high schools all across America have an “open campus” policy allowing students to leave at lunchtime. In Oakland, only Oakland Technical High School has “open” lunch. That school enrolls about 15% of OUSD's high school students; the other 85% must remain on their campuses for lunch. Predictably, schools with closed campus have far more kids eating in the cafeteria than schools with open campus, and more students eating school lunch means more revenue for the nutrition department.

By comparison, in San Francisco, only about 18% of high school students attend schools which are closed campus. Burton HS (enrollment about 1300) and Thurgood Marshall HS (enrollment about 770) are the largest closed campus high schools; the others are very small schools, nearly all with less than 250 students each. While all of the largest SF high schools, with enrollments over 2,000 students each, are fully open campus, most of the mid-sized schools (with enrollments from about 500 -1400 students) allow some students to leave at lunchtime. Overall, about 55% of SFUSD HS students attend school on a fully open campus, with another 27% on partially open campuses.

There are many reasons why SFUSD allows so many high school students to leave school at lunchtime, including cafeterias which are too small to accommodate all students during one lunch period, and pressure from students and parents to give kids more freedom during their one break of the day. However, it is clear that when students leave school for lunch, cafeteria patronage drops, meaning less revenue for the nutrition department. Although it is not the nutrition departments that make the decision about whether a high school will be open or closed, clearly OUSD's nutrition department, with 85% of their HS students on closed campuses, has a financial advantage in this area over SFUSD’s.

None of this is to disparage the fine work that Jennifer LeBarre is doing to improve school food in Oakland. By all accounts she has done an amazing job of building support for her program both within OUSD and also in the surrounding community. The fact that she has 14 managers within her department, while SF has 6, allows her to spend between 5-10 hours weekly in meetings with district stakeholders and other OUSD staff, and networking with the community.

“A lot of my time is in planning meetings,” she told me. It has been time well spent, as OUSD now has a clear plan for improving their school meal program, developed in conjunction with the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Many in San Francisco believed that the consultant study paid for and directed by the SF Food Bank was going to be a similar feasibility study to determine costs for scratch cooking in San Francisco, but were disappointed when it instead turned out to be mostly a review of the existing school meal program, riddled with questionable findings.

LeBarre’s efforts have certainly helped build support for her program within the OUSD administration, but OUSD has another reason to prioritize feeding more kids - or rather, nearly a million more reasons. Oakland qualifies for a state revenue stream called “Meals for Needy Pupils” (MNP), which the Revenue Limit Summary included in this memo indicates was expected to bring in almost $1 million in extra funding in 2010-11, based on the number of free and reduced price meals served.

Only about 1/3 of California school districts qualify for MNP money, and the decision is based on whether schools had a particular kind of property tax override in place in a particular year in the late 1970s. Oakland had it, San Francisco didn't.

Despite its name, school districts receiving MNP money don't need to spend it on meals; they can add it to their general fund to pay for other programmatic expenses. The ability to bring in extra funding, above and beyond what is already provided by the state and federal government, for every free and reduced price meal served gives every OUSD staffer, from the Superintendent down to the lowest paid part time employee, incentive to want to improve their meal program and get more kids eating school meals to generate more money for the general fund. It's an incentive that SFUSD lacks.

That said, I believe that Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith feels in his heart that better food for kids is vital, regardless of whether it generates more money for the general fund. When Smith was a deputy superintendent in SFUSD in 2007, I heard him speak passionately about his own experiences growing up as a low income kid eating free school lunch. In a statement released in conjunction with Oakland's school lunch study earlier this year, Smith said, “School food reform is not separate from school reform. It is part of the basic work we have to do in order to correct systemic injustice, pursue equity, and give our children the best future possible.”

SFUSD's recently retired Superintendent Carlos Garcia found the money to pay for installation of an electronic point of sale payment system, a much needed upgrade for cafeterias that has increased lunch money collection and allowed more choices in middle and high schools. Still, with his attention focused on one budget crisis after another, leading a healthy food initiative was never a high priority for Garcia.

For the past 6 years, the one overriding message from top SFUSD brass to the student nutrition department was not “serve better food,” but rather “reduce your deficit.” Since 2008, changes to the district's Wellness Policy which would require additional funding have been banned by the SFUSD Department of Policy and Operations, which oversees student nutrition.

Now, however, there are indications that may be changing. SF school board member Rachel Norton sees burgeoning interest and support from new Superintendent Richard Carranza as a sign that the time is right for SFUSD to move forward on a major student nutrition initiative.

A central kitchen, funded by a bond and kept operational by additional funding from a parcel tax, would enable scratch cooked meals with fresh local ingredients to be prepared right here in San Francisco. It would create good jobs for San Francisco's workforce and better nutrition for our students. A location in the southeast sector would help drive economic recovery in that area, and be ideally located close to both the SF Wholesale Produce Market and to freeways, to facilitate delivery of farm fresh produce to the kitchen and speed delivery of meals to schools.

Norton's fellow school board member Jill Wynns told me,

“Sup. Carranza recognizes the importance of better nutrition for our students, and, I believe, will make the continuing improvement of our student nutrition programs a high priority in his new administration. We have discussed the clear advantage both for the students and for the City of finding a way to build a central kitchen that would simultaneously produce tastier, fresher meals, while providing jobs in a part of town with high unemployment, and making the best use of our local agricultural bounty.”

It is pointless to talk about how Oakland runs their meal program in the black while SF doesn't, without a full discussion of all of the relevant issues. More expensive labor, the costs of feeding kids not qualified for free meals, and the open campuses all contribute heavily to SF's program deficit, but these are all costs which SFUSD leaders believe are justified. As SF nutrition director Ed Wilkins told me, “I support paying my cafeteria staff fairly; after all, they have to live in this very expensive city.”

However, Oakland does clearly illustrate one vital point: top district leadership on the issue is the most essential factor to making better school meals happen.


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