As San Francisco Unified School District prepares to transition to a new Superintendent, I urge the Board of Education to give student nutrition a higher priority. A presentation by the San Francisco Food Bank at the May 22nd Board of Education meeting will make clear that parents, students, school staff and community members all agree that while there have been many improvements to the school meal programs over the past decade, it is still not ideal to rely to such a large extent on frozen meals prepared far away.
As a hub of both agriculture and appreciation for culinary arts, Northern California is uniquely situated to support scratch cooking with fresh local ingredients. It is unfortunate that San Francisco's high cost of living, paired with the unrealistically low government reimbursement for school meals, results in a Student Nutrition Services budget which is inadequate even to cover the cost of frozen meals, let alone the much higher cost of scratch cooking.
The Board of Education is to be commended for continuing over the past decade to contribute general fund monies to the Student Nutrition Services budget. This contribution has allowed improvements including whole grains, fresh fruit, dark green and orange vegetables, salad bars, and Grab n Go breakfast to be offered to our students since years before the recent Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act made some of them federal requirements. Likewise, strong leadership at Student Nutrition Services eliminated trans fat, fried food, most artificial colors and flavors, and high fructose corn syrup long before these unhealthy ingredients were targeted by law.
The installation of a Point of Sale swipe card system for payment has enabled all middle and high schools to offer a wide variety of complete meals to all students, instead of the self-defeating practice of offering snacks for cash, which too many other school districts still employ. Thank you to outgoing Superintendent Carlos Garcia for finding the money to pay for the Point of Sale system! The leadership Mr. Garcia demonstrated in identifying funding for this vital project has resulted in a far more equitable - and healthier - lunchtime for thousands of SFUSD students.
Continued improvements in this era of cruelly pinched school budgets will be more of a challenge than ever. As the Food Bank report makes clear, Student Nutrition Services lacks vital infrastructure - including manpower, facilities, and such basic information as a complete equipment inventory - necessary for making the kind of changes the community wants to see. Meals freshly cooked by our own trained staff, in a modern central kitchen facility, using locally sourced ingredients, will not come cheaply, but the overwhelming evidence of the link between better nutrition and higher academic achievement should lead SFUSD to seek an even higher level of nutrition for our students.
It is time for the Board of Education to recommit to prioritizing school meal programs, and to articulate a vision for what they want those programs to look like. I respectfully suggest that such visioning be made a part of the agenda for the annual board retreat later this year, so that moving forward, Student Nutrition Services, and the entire community, will have clear goals for which to aim, and a shared understanding of what an optimal school meal program should look like.
While funds may not be available to implement the ideal scratch cooking model for several years, it costs nothing to create a vision for continuing the decade long trend towards better and healthier meals; it costs nothing to create a vision around which to rally the community, to drive that vision forward. That vision must come from the Board of Education, and be embraced by the Superintendent and all top district staff.
The federal government, sadly, has refused to recognize its responsibility to adequately fund school nutrition programs in high cost of living areas such as San Francisco. It is clear that our community must step in and backfill that need, but leadership on this must come from the top.
Will the Board of Education and the new Superintendent have the courage to take up this challenge? The health, well being, and academic success of our students depends on it.
SFUSD parent, retired co-chair SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and founder, PEACHSF.org