It has been said that you can’t put a price on children’s health, but you can put a price on good nutrition at school. Cafeterias moving back to scratch cooking their meals is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Scratch cooking is the only way for a school district to be able to control completely how much sugar, salt, and other additives go into the food; it is the most efficient way to make use of locally grown produce; and, scratch cooked meals look better, smell better, and often taste better than plastic-encased prefab meals.

But the question remains - is this something the financially strapped SFUSD can afford to do?

With the ongoing lunch delivery meltdown by SFUSD's meal provider, there is now more interest than ever in the idea of a central kitchen to prepare school meals from scratch. How fortuitous, then, that a school meal assessment will soon be released; the report is expected to examine in detail various options for moving forward with better school food for San Francisco’s approx. 56,000 public school students. The study is the brainchild of longtime SF Food Bank executive director Paul Ash, a man whose dedication to eradicating hunger in SF has helped the Food Bank grow to the level where it now serves over 200,000 people a year in SF and Marin. The Food Bank arranged for all of the funding to pay for the study; no school district funds were used.

When Prismatic Services, the firm hired to do the report, was in town last spring to do research and conduct interviews with stakeholders, I met at length with the lead investigator, Tatia Prieto. When asked what I hoped the study would provide, I laid out for her my hopes for a menu of options, with costs detailed for each. Better school food advocates have called for a variety of solutions over the years, but there has never been any data available to allow for a meaningful discussion based on cost. This assessment provides the first real opportunity for the community to see all possibilities explored and the costs for each quantified. Among the choices I am hoping to see examined are:

Option 1: One central kitchen where meals could be scratch cooked and shipped out to all schools, to be reheated and served the next day; a suggested location, and an estimated cost to build or remodel the facility, an estimate to staff it, and an additional estimate of cost to deliver meals around the city; additional estimates for the schools serving the food to get equipment upgrades including sufficient sinks, refrigeration, and rethermalization ovens to reheat and serve the food prepared in the central kitchen; and an estimate of the cost to staff the school lunchrooms serving the scratch cooked meals.

Option 2: Similar breakdown of all costs listed above, for several satellite cooking locations around the city to each prepare scratch cooked food for the schools in their area, and recommended locations (presumably unused or underutilized district property.)

Option 3: Similar breakdown of all costs to scratch cook in all sites which still have a kitchen, with schools with no kitchen at all receiving meals shipped out from the closest school with sufficient kitchen capacity to provide them.

I have already explained in detail why an expert in this field believes that the option of locating satellite kitchens within schools is not a good choice due to cost, as well as student safety, noise and other neighborhood concerns. I am hopeful that this assessment will quantify the costs so that all options can be compared on that basis.

School food reformer Kate Adamick runs boot camps for cafeteria staff in which she teaches them basic cooking skills, enabling cafeterias to return to scratch cooking. She likes to say that the idea that scratch cooked food costs more than processed food is a “myth.” Savings, she says, come from taking the raw ingredients that the USDA makes available to schools for free or as low-cost commodities, and turning those ingredients into meals right in the district kitchens, instead of paying processors to do it.

Many school districts contract with food processors who take delivery of the school’s free or low cost commodity meat, for example, turning them into hamburgers or chicken nuggets, and delivering the finished product to the schools, charging a per-meal fee for their service. The thinking is that these fees charged by processors can be redirected to pay for the labor necessary for schools, which have become reliant on serving processed meals prepared elsewhere, to instead employ their own trained staff to cook.

The discussion that doesn’t happen, however, is about how the food processors are generally located in low cost of living areas, where they can employ a labor force at close to minimum wage to do the processing. If a school district attempting to take their cooking in house is similarly located in a low cost of living area, and similarly able to pay relatively low wages to their kitchen staff, the savings may be enough to make a scratch cooking enterprise feasible. Why pay a processor to employ workers for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour when you can pay that to your own workers and save the markup that the processor charges to cover their profit?

The problem for San Francisco is that our high cost of living has driven a pay scale that has our cafeteria staff paid a higher wage than any other caf workers in the country, and far more than big food processors pay their labor. This means bringing the necessary labor in house is likely to cost more, not less, than contracting it out to big food processors.

Still, the higher cost of a relatively small number of skilled chefs in one central kitchen may be affordable; the real cost increase is the number of additional workers needed to serve the scratch cooked meals at the approximately 75 elementary schools. The current system of individually packaged meals requires just one worker; serving up scratch cooked meals would require at least 2 workers per site. What would be the cost of all that extra labor, and where will the money come from to cover that cost? The school meal assessment should provide the answers.

It may be that the most valuable new information that the study provides is the estimated labor cost for each option. The building of a central kitchen could be paid for with money from a school facilities bond, but finding a way to fund the ongoing cost of additional labor is more challenging. Making the switch to a scratch cooking meal program has caused labor controversy in other communities.

A recent article in the Seattle Times highlighted the struggles of their former student nutrition director who was apparently eased out of that job by his superiors after just one year, despite his success in moving the district to a healthier menu; the former director apparently felt that his school district was more concerned with the needs of labor than with the needs of its students. To help pay for newly-hired trained chefs to scratch cook in Boulder CO schools, famed lunch lady Ann Cooper cut the hours of existing workers, some of whom complained that they had to work extra unpaid hours because the job couldn't get done within their reduced schedules. San Francisco would certainly want to avoid this kind of outcome.

There seems to be general agreement that scratch cooking on SFUSD property, whether in one kitchen or multiple sites, is everyone’s preferred choice, and the school meal assessment is expected to confirm that. Ideally, the report will also lay out the cost, so that our community can begin having the most important discussion - is scratch cooking affordable for SF's schools? To best serve both the interests of the students, with tastier, more appealing food, and the best interests of the workers, with a living wage, San Francisco is going to have to get creative. The meal assessment will be the beginning of that conversation.

Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. She shares what she has learned at peachsf.org.