Just when you think things can't get any worse, they do. New legislation would allow mobile food vendors, including roach coaches selling soda, chips and candy, to park closer to public middle and high schools in San Francisco; the proposed ordinance will be heard at the Land Use & Economic Development Committee of the Board of Supervisors today (June 10th) at 1pm. While the legislation's sponsor, District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, is focused on trying to please both restaurant owners and food truck owners, the impact of bringing mobile food vendors closer to schools, which long ago banned junk food, has been largely ignored.

Existing ordinance requires mobile vendors to keep back 1500 feet from the property line of all SF public middle and high schools, but the proposed new ordinance would shorten that distance to 500 feet for middle schools, 1000 feet for some high schools, and 750 feet for other high schools (including Mission, Galileo, and O'Connell.)


This unwanted competition couldn't come at a worse time for the school meal program, where efforts to serve students a healthier, tastier meal in an atmosphere of dignity and respect have proved popular with students, but have severely strained the budget. Just as students are starting to embrace school food, the proposed rule change would bring mobile vendors much closer to school, luring students with money away from the cafeteria.

In an attempt to play nice, SFUSD officials have already agreed to Supervisor Wiener's proposed changes for 35 of the 38 affected schools, but in a flagrant display of "my way or the highway", Wiener has refused to compromise on the three remaining schools and is bringing his legislation before the Board of Supervisors despite SFUSD's opposition.

It is well known that two of the main reasons why students historically have not eaten school meals are that they disliked the food, or that they were embarrassed to have their friends see them taking a "free" meal. To overcome these barriers, SFUSD hired a vendor who could deliver freshly prepared, never frozen meals using high quality ingredients; in January 2013, Oakland based Revolution Foods began serving all 114 SFUSD schools, and the number of students choosing to eat this much tastier school lunch increased by 11%.

A point of sale swipe card system has been installed in every school cafeteria, to allow all students to use the same form of payment; students receiving free lunch use the same card as students paying for their meal, so no one can tell just by looking who is eating for free. A la carte entrees, formerly available only to students with money to pay, have been eliminated, and all meals are now available to all students. As more paying students join the lunch line to buy an appetizing Revolution Foods meal, standing in the cafeteria line no longer stigmatizes students as "poor".

But these improvements come at a cost. The point of sale installation required over $1 million, and one semester of tastier meals from Revolution Foods ended up costing about half a million dollars more than what was budgeted for meals for the 2012-13 school year, which ended May 31st.

Next year promises to drive costs for the school meal program even higher. The cafeteria workers' contract is being renegotiated right now, with the potential for increased labor and benefits costs. The tab for serving the pricier Revolution Foods meals for two semesters instead of just one will also increase expenditures. The only way to drive more revenue to offset these increased costs is for more students to eat school meals, but with food trucks parking nearby to tempt students with junk food they can't get at school, it hardly seems likely that more students will choose school lunch, no matter how delicious.

Lost revenue from students opting to make lunch of soda and chips from a food truck (or even an organic bahn mi sandwich) is just one issue. Equally troubling is the social justice issue. When cool kids with money in their pockets are lured off campus at lunchtime to choose from the offerings of roach coaches or trendy food trucks, the old stigma of "only poor kids eat in the cafeteria" returns, discouraging even low income students who have no other alternative from eating the school lunch that they should be able to enjoy with dignity.

Then there are the health consequences of making junk food too available to youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010 more than 1/3 of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese. The CDC says, "Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors."

School meal programs are also subject to government regulations ensuring that food served to students is nutritious, and that calories are capped. Mobile food vendors are bound by no such regulation, and while there are some food trucks that offer some healthy choices, there are plenty of others that sell junk food, and nothing in Supervisor Wiener's proposed ordinance would keep those junk vendors farther from schools.

When experts discuss child obesity, their predictions are somber. “For the first time in our history, children may face a shorter life span than their parents because of the consequences of this epidemic,” said a NYC Health Department official last fall, and she was not the first to make this pronouncement.

Schools in SF are trying to be part of the solution, offering students a healthy and tasty school lunch that can help build good eating habits for life. The 1500 foot keep-back ordinance was put in place in 2007 to help support the schools' efforts, but no one seems to care about that anymore. Now it's all about the rights of food trucks and the rights of restaurants. What about the rights of students, especially low income students, who may not get much to eat at home, to be offered a decent school meal?

SFUSD's Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department has run a deficit for many years. Understanding that the federal payment for free meals for low income students is not nearly enough to cover expenses in our high cost of living city, the SF Board of Education has historically been willing to allow a transfer of general fund money into the SNS budget to make up the deficit. But after years of funding cuts from the state, schools face budget deficits of their own, and the money in the general fund is needed to pay for teachers and textbooks.

On June 7th, Chris Armentrout, SFUSD's director of development and government relations, notified Board of Supervisors President Davis Chiu, on behalf of the Superintendent and the Board of Education, that the school district never agreed to a 750 foot limit around certain high schools. Citing concerns about student health, stigmatization of low income students, and lost revenue, he wrote in an e-mail to Supervisor Chiu:

We’ve had extensive discussions with Supervisor Wiener and his staff, and have worked together to find a solution. Even though we made significant progress, the Board of Education does not agree with the proposed modifications and therefore is unable to take a neutral position on this legislation.

We are actually quite close to an agreement with Supervisor Wiener. On February 21, 2013, the Board of Education formally agreed to not oppose the legislation if the restriction were limited to 500’ for middle schools, 1000’ for high schools and 750’ for four selected high schools. In other words, of our 38 secondary schools, the Board of Education is willing to take a neutral position on 35 (or 92%) of Supervisor Wiener’s proposed changes to the boundaries. The critical difference is our requirement that the boundaries around Galileo, O’Connell and Mission only be reduced to 1000’ because of these schools’ large student populations and the challenges they have experienced with food trucks around their campuses. For these three schools, the Board of Education is amenable to decreasing those restrictions to 1000’, but they cannot remain neutral on a decrease to 750’.

The passage of Prop 30 last November stopped the school budget picture from getting even worse, but California's schools are far from being out of the woods financially. Cash-strapped schools shouldn't have to choose between budgeting to meet students' educational needs and budgeting to meet their nutritional needs.

Supervisor Wiener's proposed legislation will only increase the stigma of eating in a high school cafeteria, at a time when SFUSD's efforts to serve better quality food need to be supported financially by more students choosing school lunch, including more high school students.

It is hard to believe that allowing mobile vendors to park 750 feet from the three high schools in dispute is so vital to the success of Supervisor Wiener's plan that he must insist on it over the school district's objections, and despite the fact that it would negatively impact students, especially low income students.

It is low income youth who suffer most from increased stigma, and who benefit most from having a financially stable school meal program that can afford to offer them high quality, appealing food. That financial stability is already under pressure from both increased meal costs and higher labor and benefits expenses. Competition from mobile vendors parked closer to schools may well be the last straw.

SFUSD officials have met Supervisor Wiener more than halfway; now he needs to compromise too, and agree to keep mobile vendors 1000 feet from Mission, Galileo, and O'Connell high schools.

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