On May 22nd, the SF Board of Education held its first in-depth discussion of student nutrition since passing the "Feeding Every Hungry Child"
resolution in spring 2009. The discussion was triggered by a study, intended to help identify ways that SFUSD could feed more kids better food, which was commissioned by the SF Food Bank, conducted by Prismatic Services Inc.
, and presented at the meeting. If you missed this meeting, you can watch it on SFGTV
(click on the “video” link for May 22, 2012; discussion begins about 2 hours, 17 minutes in.)
Consultant Tatia Prieto from Prismatic identified 7 recommendations from the study as “most critical” and needing immediate action. Included were hiring more area supervisors, who provide support and oversight for cafeteria workers (currently there are 2; the study recommends 7), plus an additional worker at each of about 70 elementary school cafeterias currently staffed with one worker. Other recommendations were having recess before lunch; more reports analyzing revenue and expenditures; improving the appearance of cafeterias; establishing a capital improvements program for all student nutrition facilities; and additional management reports.
Oddly, the seventh “critical recommendation” of the study called for something SFUSD has already done: eliminating the two-tier lunch system, in which students qualified for free or reduced price meals have one set of options, while students who pay for their meals are offered an additional set of options. Prismatic Services seemed unaware that SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) piloted
this idea back in the 2009-10 school year, and that “reimbursable a la carte” (offering the same choice of full meals to all student regardless of whether they qualified for free meals or paid for their lunch) was fully in place when Prismatic studied the program in spring 2011, having been rolled out to all middle and high schools in August 2010
Calling for a “change” which has already been in place for two full school years seems like an egregious error for a study that cost $180,000
, but maybe I am nitpicking.
After the Prismatic presentation, SNS director Ed Wilkins gave an update on his department’s work. Among notable recent accomplishments are school breakfast grants secured from the California Department of Education, which helped fund Grab n Go breakfast at 9 high schools, increasing the number of these students eating breakfast by 35%; next year, Grab n Go rolls out to 10 middle schools as well.
The amount of unpaid meal charges has decreased, and more families than ever before are using the online Meal Pay Plus program to pay for their child’s meals. As a result, it is expected that the SNS deficit will be reduced by almost a million dollars for 2011-12 as compared to 2009-10. Finally, for the first time in decades, SNS passed a federally required review of their program on the first try, without the need for a follow up review.
Next, public comment was heard from members of the SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee, including calls for the BOE to take leadership
on creating a vision for what an ideal school nutrition program should look like.
Paula Jones, director of Food Systems for the SF Department of Public Health, longtime member and current chair of the SFUSD Food and Fitness Committee, was one of the 5 members of the steering committee for the Food Bank-sponsored study. During her public comment, she praised the “positive trajectory”
which SNS has been on under Wilkins’ direction.
About the study, she said, “We have to look at the data in terms of the cost of doing business here, cost of doing business in other places, and we have to frame this issue correctly, because I haven’t seen an analysis yet that showed me that it’s really able to break even in a place like San Francisco. I look forward to seeing if someone can do it, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
She also tactfully suggested that “we may want to look over some of the data, discuss it, and see if it is accurate.”
I too have concerns about the accuracy of some of the data presented, especially since reading conflicting data in another Prismatic study. The SF study claimed that the industry standard for “Meals Per Labor Hour” (MPLH) for a reheat-and-serve program like SF runs, is 50-60 MPLH; the study was critical of SF for having an internal standard of 20 MPLH.
However, earlier this spring Prismatic performed a study
for Halifax County (VA) Public Schools which (in exhibit 10-8) cited the industry standard for reheat-and-serve as 12-23 MPLH, not 50-60 MPLH, as their SF study claimed. It seems like if there really is an industry standard for reheat-and-serve child nutrition programs, then the standard should be the same in both SF and Halifax County.
Virtually all of the BOE members praised SNS director Ed Wilkins for his department’s many improvements. Commissioner Emily Murase said she was “astounded” at the $1 million savings SNS was able to drive through better cash collection, expressed her delight that that money would be returned to the classrooms, and led a round of applause. Several commissioners expressed interest in recess before lunch, hiring more area supervisors for SNS, additional expansion of school breakfast, and a feasibility study to determine the costs for various scratch cooking models, including a central kitchen.
Commissioner Sandra Fewer made an excellent point when describing the “cafeteria experience” where, she said,
“[Students are] pushed into a cafeteria, it is very crowded, monitors are rushing kids to eat, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, and I feel like it’s not a very relaxed atmosphere in which to have a meal. And a lot of times students are told not to talk, so we’re asking students not to talk in class, and then we’re asking them, once they are released for lunch, to sit in this crowded cafeteria and not to talk to the person next to them.”
How right she is! This is a perfect example of the need for more administrative support for SNS which Commissioner Jill Wynns called for, because those lunch monitors hurrying students to finish eating, work for the schools themselves, not SNS. Likewise, any school practicing a policy of “silent lunch” is doing so at the direction of school administration, not SNS. The SNS cafeteria worker’s duties include heating and serving the meal, doing the USDA-required counting and claiming in the checkout line, and cleaning up after the meal, while supervision of student behavior is the responsibility of school staff.
Outgoing Superintendent Carlos Garcia praised SNS, saying he had eaten in numerous SFUSD cafeterias and liked the food. Then he added,
“Every middle school I have ever been to…I go around and ask the students what they like about going to middle school, especially the 6th graders, because they’re new, and the first thing they tell you is, they like the food.”
While there were calls for SNS to develop a 5 year strategic plan, no one responded to the public speakers who called for the BOE to take leadership and articulate a vision for what an ideal school meal program should look like.
Why does the vision for the school meal program need to come from the BOE and not just from SNS itself? Recess before lunch, a more peaceful cafeteria experience, central kitchen feasibility studies, and improving the appearance of cafeterias are all terrific ideas, but all are outside the purview of SNS; the impetus for those changes will have to come from district leadership. Even hiring 5 more area supervisors (at a total cost estimated to be half a million dollars annually), is not feasible for a department under strict orders to reduce its budget, not expand it, unless top district brass approve of the expenditure.
Here’s what happens when the vision of getting more kids to eat school meals is coming from SNS, but not from the school board. Several years ago, in an effort to increase breakfast participation in elementary schools, SNS director Wilkins added a hot breakfast option to the existing cold cereal, and indeed the number of students eating school breakfast rose 30% district wide
Unfortunately, many Principals opposed the program because more kids in the cafeteria before school meant increased supervision was required; Principals without staff to handle cafeteria supervision had to do it themselves, and they said they needed those 20 minutes in the morning for other work. The hot breakfast was soon discontinued, because SFUSD chose to prioritize what was best for the Principals over what was best for SNS, or for the additional students who showed up for school breakfast.
The study calls for a “breakfast in the classroom” model, but many teachers and custodians oppose that, and SNS does not have the authority to impose such a program on schools which are unwilling to welcome it. It is unrealistic to think that Principals will choose to support SNS over their own staff, unless top district staff direct them to do so; it is equally unrealistic to think that top staff will issue that directive unless compelled to do so by school board policy.
This puts the BOE in a tough position. Ideally, they would prefer to support everyone – school staff, students, and SNS – but if they want to see the kind of changes called for in the Prismatic study, they are going to have to get serious about setting clear expectations that schools must do everything possible to support those changes.
One moment during the evening was worth noting – when the Prismatic consultant Tatia Prieto was presenting the study she headed, she described the process used, which included a week of school visits. As she put it, “We ate the school food…and lived!” There was a brief giggle heard from somewhere, but watching the tape of the meeting on SFGTV, it is impossible to identify the source.
One hopes the laughter did not come from any of our school board members or district staff. Cracking jokes about the food which some low income children must rely on for most of their daily nourishment is nothing more than a form of bullying
, and it helps drive a stigma around eating school meals which results in some students choosing to go hungry rather than experience the shame of being seen eating a school lunch.
We need more of the leadership shown by Superintendent Garcia, when he stood up for school meals and publicly announced that he enjoyed them himself, and that the middle school students he met did too, or by Commissioner Rachel Norton when she said that her daughter would gladly eat school lunch every day. Eliminating the stigma around school food, which is exacerbated by unnecessary snark, should have been one of Prismatic’s top recommendations, especially since encouraging school officials to speak positively about the program costs nothing.
But reports from consultants are not likely to drive meaningful change. The BOE needs to articulate a vision for school meals and demand that the district embrace it.
Read the Prismatic presentation overview here
Read the SNS response to the study here
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org
. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife