School lunch dreams for 2013

by Dana Woldow, 2012-12-11

Now that the San Francisco Unified School District has a plan to bring freshly prepared meals to all SFUSD students in the new year, what's left for a school food advocate to wish for? Here's what I'm dreaming of for 2013.

On the federal level:

The USDA would permanently eliminate portion size limits on protein and grains for school lunches.

Due to new USDA regulations, students across the country have been seeing less meat and bread on their lunch trays this year, and they don't like it. These limits on meat and grain, which have complicated the serving of meals to kids in ways that food service managers find unnecessarily frustrating, are the subject of a new guidance memo from the USDA which eases the rules. The maximum limits on portion size for grains and meats will be eliminated for the duration of the current school year. If my wish were granted, those maximums would be eliminated forever, meaning that perhaps someday my vision for a new style school lunch menu could become a reality.

The USDA would finally get around to issuing their long-awaited standards for food sold at schools outside of federal meal programs.

It's no secret that despite efforts to improve school meals and reduce childhood obesity, many schools, including most high schools, are still selling soda and junk food through vending machines, student stores, snack bars, a la carte lines, and other on campus outlets. Section 208 of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act directs the USDA to "establish science-based standards" for all food sold at school outside of federal school meal programs, at any time during the school day. Those regulations have not yet been issued; in November, US News quoted a USDA spokesperson saying the agency had asked for more time "to ensure that we do what is right for kids in a way that is workable to the school districts that will be charged with implementation." Meanwhile the CDC is reporting that type 2 diabetes rates in children and teens are expected to spike dramatically over the next 40 years, potentially overwhelming the nation's health care system. Regulating the sale of empty calories at school would be a great way for the USDA to "do what is right for kids."

On the state level:

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's upcoming legislation reforming California's Prop 13 would gain the support it needs to usher in a new era of increased funding for schools.

Although the school meal program is funded by the federal government, it has long been known that the amount the government provides for a free meal, which is standard across the lower 48 states, is not enough to cover the cost in expensive areas like SF. Revising Prop 13 to close loopholes so that commercial properties are reassessed when they change hands, just as residential properties are, would increase state property tax revenues and produce more school funding. While not specifically aimed at increasing funding for school meals, any Prop 13 reform resulting in more revenue for schools would ease the burden on SFUSD which for years has augmented the student nutrition budget out of its general fund.

On the local level:

SFUSD's proposed new meal provider, Revolution Foods, would help draw attention to the fact that better food costs more.

The freshly prepared lunches served by Revolution Foods are light years ahead of frozen, reheated food; they both look and taste better than previous cafeteria offerings. Naturally, all that wonderfulness comes at a price.

The Rev Foods website boasts "At an average of $2.50 per lunch, Revolution Foods is ensuring that eating healthy is affordable, staying within the $2.75 for which the federal government reimburses schools." However, there is nary a mention of all of the other costs which that $2.75 is supposed to cover, like cafeteria labor to heat and serve lunch, check each child's eligibility for free meals, and clean up after, or staff time to plow through the mountains of forms to be filled out to get that government payment. It's easy to see why folks get confused about the real costs to schools of serving Revolution Foods meals.

So the media mistakenly reports that these meals fit "within the district's budget" or that "it doesn't cost schools more to choose these meals", while in reality it does cost more for these meals. If a higher quality fresh lunch from Rev Foods really cost no more than a frozen reheated lunch, don't you think SFUSD would have switched to Rev Foods years ago? There is a reason why SFUSD is one of very few large districts to propose signing with Rev Foods, and that reason is price - most school districts are unwilling or unable to underwrite the higher cost of better meals using money from their general fund, as SFUSD would be doing.

One thing I know after a decade as a school food advocate, it is that better food costs more! I wish that Revolution Foods, whose CEO Kristin Richmond was appointed in 2010 to the White House Council for Community Solutions, would use that bully pulpit to make it clear to our nation's leaders that national school meal programs are underfunded, that this year's measly 6 cent increase is not enough to pay for the larger portions of fruit and vegetables, the whole grains, and the other improvements brought by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, or for the higher quality meat Rev Foods uses.

SF's current meal provider, Preferred Meal Systems, having lost out on the new SF contract, would go away quietly.

School meal contracts have become very contentious, with major companies reluctant to lose clients to their competitors. After losing the school meal contract in Boston earlier this year to competitor Whitsons, Preferred sued the city of Boston claiming that the contract award process was biased. The lawsuit claimed that “allowing the city’s contract with Whitsons to continue will cause ongoing harm not only to Preferred Meal Systems, but also to the citizens of Massachusetts and the general public,’’ according to an article which ran in the Boston Globe last spring. That article said that Preferred also sought “damages resulting from the city’s award of the contract to Whitsons in bad faith.’’ Whitson's is currently operating in the 86 schools covered by the contract, so presumably whatever legal steps Preferred took were not sufficient to prevent the Boston contract being implemented. Let's hope there will be no such saber-rattling from Preferred here. Wasting the scarce resources of the SFUSD defending a lawsuit over a school meal contract just feels, well, wasteful. As one observer told me about the Boston lawsuit, "There should be a 'sore loser' clause in these contracts preventing this kind of thing."

Those who have been complaining about the school meal program would back off their unsubstantiated claims and support the new school meals.

The SF Examiner complained that school officials have been "resting on their laurels" since banning soda and junk food in 2003.That unsubstantiated claim sounds like it came right out of the SF Food Bank's "study" (funded by agribusiness giant ConAgra) of the school meal program, a piece of work riddled with questionable findings. Perhaps both are unaware of all that has been accomplished by SFUSD over the past decade to offer healthier meals to students. Fed up with the constant negativity, I recently transferred my charitable support from the SF Food Bank to Meals on Wheels, a highly regarded organization delivering meals to home-bound seniors.

SFUSD would work harder to reduce the Student Nutrition Services deficit by finding savings unrelated to food quality.

Every time a class takes a field trip at lunchtime, the teacher is supposed to give the cafeteria advance notice, so that the daily meal order can be reduced. Teachers can even preorder bag lunches for their low income students to take on the trip, paid for by the regular government subsidy. When teachers fail to notify the cafeteria, or do so only when it is too late to adjust the order, the waste is enormous, and each of those lunches (which USDA regs require to be thrown away if not served) represents $5 or more in combined out-of-pocket cost and forfeited government payment. Yet, amazingly, SFUSD has never required that the cafeteria notification form be filled out prior to permission being granted for a field trip.

Schools sometimes have classroom or school wide parties at lunchtime, to celebrate higher test scores, or for a holiday. Again, although schools are supposed to notify the cafeteria to reduce the meal order, that doesn't always happen, because it is not a required policy, and meals are sometimes wasted on these days. By USDA regulation, cafeterias must have at least a few subsidized lunches available even if there is another meal being provided school wide for free, so the cafeteria can't just shut down for the day, although with proper notice, labor at middle and high schools can be reduced to save money.

In 2009-10, SNS calculated the cost of these wasted meals at over $250,000 just in out-of-pocket costs, not including labor or forfeited government payment for the meals. While it would not be possible to eliminate waste entirely, how difficult could it be to make filling out the field trip cafeteria notification form a prerequisite to getting permission to take students off campus? The bag lunch request form is online and very quick to fill out; there is really no excuse for a single meal (or a single dollar) to ever be wasted because the caf wasn't notified of a field trip or free party lunch.

Every family - as well as every teacher, Principal, school nurse or nutrition education staffer - would urge every student to try the new school lunches.

While the 22,000 students who are already eating cafeteria meals each day will no doubt enjoy the tasty new fare, for the school meal program to recoup the higher cost of these better meals, more students need to choose them. School meals are available to all students, not just those who qualify for free or reduced price meals. If you filled out a meal application and were told that your student does not qualify, you can set up an online account to pay for their school meals and never have to scrounge up lunch money while trying to hustle your kids out the door in the morning. Setting up your Meal Pay Plus account now means that your child can enjoy a freshly prepared lunch as soon as winter break is over, and you never have to pack a bag lunch again.

Note to parents and guardians - if there is any chance at all that your children might qualify for government-paid meals, why not take advantage of that benefit? Personal information on individual meal applications is strictly confidential, and students can qualify for free meals all the way through September 2013 by filling out the form now. Application can be made online or by filling out a form (available in English, Spanish and Chinese) at the offices of Student Nutrition Services, 841 Ellis Street, SF, where staff is available to help if necessary.

That's my wish list; I'll be following up on all of these issues and more in the new year.

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