As students in San Francisco head back to school this week, there is a veritable buffet of school food news, and like every buffet, some items taste better than others. But among the choicest morsels, one item stands out.

For years, those of us working towards better school food have tried to raise the issue to a higher priority with SFUSD top leadership. Now it appears that those efforts have paid off. Staffing changes have resulted in Student Nutrition Services (SNS) director Ed Wilkins now reporting to Orla O'Keeffe, the new executive director of SFUSD's Office of Policy and Operations.

A mother and former restaurant owner who is also a skilled baker, O'Keeffe is widely respected by those who have worked with her both within and outside SFUSD, and restructuring within Policy and Operations means she will have more time than her predecessor had to focus on supporting SNS.

SF Board of Education Commissioner and longtime healthy school meals advocate Jill Wynns said of the staff change,

"Her appointment is a reflection of the new Superintendent's commitment to make student nutrition a priority. Orla's previous work with the district on critical policy issues has been stellar. She is enthusiastic about this work and we look forward to having her leadership and skills applied to this area that is a high priority for the community and the Board of Education."

Stacey Bartlett, parent of two at Daniel Webster Elementary School, and a member of the SFUSD Food & Fitness Committee, thinks Superintendent Richard Carranza's support is vital to move forward with improving school food.

She says: "It's been the missing piece all along. I understand that schools are a place to learn, but it can be hard to get your brain working when your stomach is rumbling. We need to ensure that every student has a healthy breakfast and lunch every school day. I think it's fantastic that our new Superintendent recognizes that and is ready to make it a priority for SFUSD."

Myong Leigh, Deputy Superintendent for Policy and Operations, confirmed that while SFUSD has been focused on the budget and closing the achievement gap, more attention will now be given to better school food.

Leigh says: "We're still at the early stages of exploring several big policy issues, like the feasibility of building and operating a central kitchen. Going forward, the district will increase its attention to these broader questions and continue to improve our support to Student Nutrition Services to make better school food happen for all of our students."

More good news is that five additional lunch vending machines will be installed in middle and high schools by the end of the year, funded by the City's Department of Children, Youth and their Families. These vending machines dispense meals to any student through the use of a PIN number linked to the student's school meal account; those who qualify for free or reduced price meals get their meal free.

For years, students have complained about how long it takes to get through the lunch line, given how short the lunch period is. Getting lunch from a machine which vends full meals (rather than snacks) provides another healthy option for busy students rushing to a club meeting at lunch period.

But, no fear that the machines will replace human cafeteria workers. On the contrary, the cafeteria staff assemble the meals for vending, stock the machines, and remove any meals left over at the end of the lunch period, so more meals sold via vending machines means more job security for staff.

On site assembly of school meals is another way to bring fresh healthy food to students, and a pilot funded by the California Endowment beginning later this year at one school will try to nail down a menu of lunch choices which could be entirely prepared on site, rather than brought in frozen and reheated.

The successful Grab n Go breakfast program, already operating in 10 high schools, will be rolled out to 9 middle schools this year, bringing the total number of sites with Grab n Go to 19 schools. Gran n Go offers a meal students can pick up as they enter school in the morning, then take to class to eat in the first 10 minutes of class time.

Also new this year, the SFUSD Food & Fitness Committee (formerly the Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee) has a new web page on the SFUSD website, providing dates and agendas of upcoming meetings, and minutes of previous meetings. The committee was created by resolution of the Board of Education in 2003 and is now beginning its 10th year as the district's officially recognized group working on improving school food.

The committee has made enormous progress over the past decade in advocating for school meal improvements which are feasible within the confines of a severely restricted budget. All meetings are open to the public, and chair Paula Jones urges anyone who wants better food for our students to please start attending the meetings and getting involved. The next meeting is September 13th, 3:30-5:00 pm in the Board Room at 555 Franklin Street.

In other school food news, a recent article on California schools' nutrition programs reported that 60% of programs reviewed by the state in the past 5 years failed to meet at least one of the federally required nutrition standards. The good news is that while most California school meals fell short nutritionally, the article reports that SFUSD did meet every required standard in its most recent review last year.

SFUSD has for many years gotten its prepared meals from Preferred Meal Systems Inc. (PMSI), an Illinois-based company. Lack of adequate cooking facilities, aging infrastructure, and high labor costs all contribute to making the move to scratch cooking for SF students a slow going process. While continuing to look towards a central kitchen where fresh appetizing meals could be prepared using local ingredients, SFUSD has been able to offer meals which are nutritionally superior to those served in most California school districts, priced as affordably as possible given that the federal payment for free meals is inadequate in this high cost city.

Now, with food prices on the rise around the world, and new USDA requirements, especially for larger portions of fruits and vegetables, in place as of July 1, the per meal price SFUSD pays has again gone up. Meanwhile, some changes necessitated by the new USDA rules, including reduced portion sizes for meat and grains, may lead to some grumbling.

Per USDA regulation, students will be required to take either fruit or vegetable with their meal, but those who are smart will take both, and eat them. The smaller portion sizes for grains and meat mandated by the new rules mean that those who choose to dump their fruits and veggies in the trash may find themselves still hungry when lunch is over.

Despite SFUSD's increased meal cost, the price students pay for their school meals remains unchanged, and as always, those who qualify for free and reduced price meals receive both breakfast and lunch at no charge.

The school district's meal contract will be rebid later this fall, opening up the possibility that a new vendor may be providing SFUSD's meals beginning as early as January.

Still hungry for more on school food in the Bay Area? Here are a few items you may have missed during summer vacation:
A new tale of two cities: Oakland's school meals program operates without a deficit; does that mean San Francisco's should be able to do likewise?

Fixing school food - what helps, what doesn't: Those of us who want to help need to accept that the issue is far more complex than it appears, and that unless we have managed a child nutrition program for years, our beliefs are likely based more on opinion, and possibly wishful thinking, than on fact. It’s hard to help when we don’t even realize how much we don’t know; sometimes it turns out that “helping” doesn’t really help.

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