In the future, we may look back at 2013 as the year the San Francisco Unified School District finally got everything right on school food. The contract with Oakland based healthy meal provider Revolution Foods, which began in January and runs through the 2013-14 school year, brought delicious meals to all 114 cafeterias, and increased the number of students choosing school lunch by 11%. Changes that seemed almost impossible a decade ago have been accomplished, and San Francisco can be proud of its school meal program and of the commitment it has made to feeding students only the freshest and healthiest food at school, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect. It feels like the Golden Age of school food has arrived, but how long will it last?



It hasn't been easy getting here. A decade ago, some barriers appeared almost insurmountable: relatively few families even bothered to fill out a free meal application, middle and high school cafeterias sold soda and Cheetos, and the hot meals were disgusting. Students shunned the free lunch line in droves; a cash-only payment system for a la carte snack food sold outside the federal free lunch program made low income students seeking a free lunch stand out as "poor", stigmatizing them and the lunch program. Even with that era's much lower food and labor costs, the Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department deficit in 2003 was over $1.2 million.

This year, over 90% of students returned their meal application. Junk food is gone from the cafeterias, the hot lunch is tasty and popular, and the elimination of competitive food sales, combined with the installation of a Point of Sale swipe card payment system, means no one can tell just by looking who is eating a free lunch and who paid for their meal. Increasing numbers of students choosing school lunch prove that the stigma is starting to dissipate.

The SNS deficit, driven by SF's higher than average cost of living and a decade of rising food and labor costs, is on track to come in at about $2.4 million this year, half a million dollars higher than last year. However, that is still substantially below the 2010 deficit, which topped $3 million, and that was back when the schools still served unappetizing frozen reheated meals. In other words, while still running in the red, the department will lose less money serving great food this year than it did serving unappealing food just a few years ago.

Through careful stewardship of every dollar, reducing waste, tightening up inventory, responsible contract negotiation, and laser-like focus on improving the department, retiring SNS director Ed Wilkins has achieved his longtime dream of putting an enticing and healthy lunch on the table for every student, increasing uptake of school meals and reducing stigma, while curtailing the financial impact his department has on the SFUSD general fund. Wilkins can retire secure in the knowledge that his 16 years of dedicated service to the children of the SFUSD brought real tangible improvements to those students' health and well being.

Unfortunately, this Golden Age may not last. Already the projected budget for 2013-14 shows an increase in the SNS deficit, from $2.4 million in 2012-13, to $2.6 million for next year. The Board of Education has for years made up the SNS deficit out of the general fund, but it was the Board's wish that the deficit not exceed $2 million this year. The higher cost of serving fresh tasty meals rather than unpopular frozen reheated fare made that goal impossible, and it will require strict controls and full use of all available commodity food to meet next year's projected budget.

With labor and delivery costs expected to rise, there are choppy financial waters ahead; strong leadership for SNS will be needed to keep the ship afloat. The closer the deficit inches towards $3 million, the greater the likelihood the Board of Education will demand cuts, and with labor costs locked in, there is nothing to cut but the food.

That's why new legislation allowing both trendy food trucks and old fashioned roach coaches to park closer to middle and high schools, which passed unanimously at the Board of Supervisors on June 18th, poses a challenge to school cafeterias. When students with money in their pockets choose to buy food from a mobile vendor parked 750 feet from campus, leaving only low income students to eat their meal of shame in the cafeteria, it reintroduces the stigma that SFUSD has worked so hard to eliminate. Easier access to competitive food does nothing to encourage students to eat cafeteria meals, at a time when SNS needs more students, not less, choosing school lunch and bringing revenue to the cafeteria to help pay the higher cost of fresh tasty food.

Speaking on behalf of SFUSD at the June 10th BOS Land Use committee meeting, SFUSD Director of Development and Government Relations Chris Armentrout requested an amendment to the legislation requiring maps to be drawn showing the exact boundaries around the affected schools; absent such maps, it will be impossible to tell whether a truck is actually parked closer to a school than the law allows. The closer trucks creep to schools, the more students will be drawn to them.

After a 2007 ordinance required trucks to keep back 1500 feet from public middle and high schools, it took two years to get a truck parked directly behind O'Connell High School to move - and that was a truck which anyone could see was clearly only 10 feet from the school property line. Most people can't accurately eyeball a distance of 750 feet. How many years will it take to get a truck that parks 600 feet from a school, instead of 750, to move? If schools are ever going to be able to ensure that all food vendors are abiding by the new rules, maps showing where trucks can and cannot locate are essential.

But no such maps exist. Supervisor Scott Wiener, author of the legislation and chair of the Land Use committee, said that maps would be too difficult for city departments to draw. This despite the fact that he had already had maps drawn showing both 1500 foot boundaries and 500 foot boundaries, back when he was pushing to have the limit set at 500 feet for both middle and high schools.

Apparently when Sup. Wiener wants maps, he can get them, but when anyone else wants them, they become too difficult to obtain.

In anticipation of Wilkins' retirement at the end of this month, Student Nutrition Services assistant director Zetta Reicker was recently named interim director of the department. Reicker has been keeping a low public profile, spending her time this spring working with IDEO on their reform initiative for school meals. When it was learned that Chris Armentrout would be unable to attend the June 18th Board of Supervisors meeting where the proposed new food truck rules would be up for a vote, Reicker was given the job of testifying on behalf of SFUSD and the department she will soon head.

Unfortunately, Reicker declined to attend the meeting; instead, she sent a lower level manager with no experience at the Board of Supervisors, who did not understand the procedure for testifying. In the end, the Board was unaware that a school district representative was in the chambers, causing Supervisor Jane Kim, herself a former SFUSD school board President, to express her frustration that the SFUSD did not even bother to show up to speak in support of the amendments it was requesting.

The legislation was passed without any discussion at all of SFUSD's objections.

This is not the first time that SFUSD top administrators have dropped the ball on student nutrition. In the spring of 2012, after SNS director Ed Wilkins renegotiated a contract rollover with last year's meal provider Preferred Meal Systems, which would have resulting in a minimal pricing increase for 2012-13, he forwarded the contract to his then-supervisor (who has since left the district) to move up the chain of command. His supervisor ignored the matter for so long that the existing contract expired, voiding the rollover and allowing Preferred to demand and get much higher pricing for meals which were of lesser quality than what Wilkins had negotiated.

Going forward, the department will need strong visionary leadership, the kind provided by Ed Wilkins, if it is to extend the Golden Age of School Food in San Francisco. The job opening for a new permanent director is expected to be posted by the end of this month. Let's hope there are qualified candidates willing to apply. Student Nutrition Services should have a superstar to continue the progress of the past decade, and our students deserve no less.

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