It has been well-documented that hungry students can’t learn, but there is to more to getting kids to eat a school lunch than just improving the food. Making kids feel comfortable enough to get into the lunch line is a challenge even in districts with scratch-cooked meals using locally sourced ingredients. School food reformer Chef Ann Cooper, who overhauled school meals in Berkeley, says, “High school students are some of the hardest to get to eat in the cafeterias. For too long, eating school food has been associated with being poor, and that stigma is hard to shed.”

Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College in New York, knows all about that stigma. In one of the best-known scholarly studies of the National School Lunch Program, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, she wrote:

The biggest problem is the stigma that comes from being different, from being marked as poor, from being unable to pay in a culture that places excessive value on being able to pay and a school food subculture that increasingly views children as ‘customers.’

Several years ago, San Francisco Unified School District began taking steps to combat the stigma. A swipe card system was installed in the cafeterias, so no one can tell just by looking who is paying for their meal and who is getting free lunch. A la carte choices previously available only to those with money to purchase them were eliminated, and a wider choice of complete meals is now offered to all students.

Fundraising food sales that competed with the school lunch program were eliminated by SFUSD’s Wellness Policy. Even the City got on board with the idea that competition with the meal program drained away money which was badly needed to offer higher quality food. In 2007, a San Francisco city ordinance was passed keeping mobile food vendors 1,500 feet (about three blocks) from public middle and high schools.

But now, “The City that Knows How” may be poised to reverse course. Proposed legislation before the Board of Supervisors would shorten the distance mobile vendors must keep back from schools to just one block. The current law is doing its intended job of keeping “roach coaches” and other vendors away from SFUSD students, and helping to protect the school meal program. More middle and high school kids are eating school lunch now than five years ago. Bringing vendors closer to school will surely undo that progress.

For many reasons, San Francisco’s school meal program needs more protection than other communities. SFUSD meals contain whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and lean meat (no “pink slime” served here!); middle and high schools have salad bars, meals contain 0g trans fat, no artificial colors or flavors, and nothing is fried - ever. Since 2010, all meals have met the Gold Standard under the USDA's Healthier US Schools initiative.

SFUSD has eliminated a la carte, an additional revenue stream in other school districts, and serves only full meals, so that every choice is available to every student. Most other districts continue to allow the de facto economic segregation that happens when low-income students getting free lunch are offered one or two choices, while those with money have a whole buffet of a la carte offerings to choose from. When free lunch is viewed as “poor people’s food,” many students will choose to go hungry rather than bear the stigma of self-identifying as poor in front of their peers.

Some school districts turn away students with no money who get in the cafeteria line without being eligible for free lunch, while others give those kids a “meal of shame” of a cheese sandwich or cold cereal; SFUSD provides every child in line with a full meal, even if they cannot pay for it.

All of this adds to the cost of operating the meal program, which is already underfunded by the federal government. Nowhere is that underfunding more apparent than in San Francisco, where the high cost of living drives some of the highest labor costs in the country.

Currently, the school district contributes over $3 million from its general fund to augment the insufficient government funding. It’s worth it to provide a better experience for students, with less stigma around eating school meals, and healthier choices. The school district’s primary mission is education, so it's vital that students eat a midday meal, because hungry students can't learn.

The proposal to shorten the distance mobile food vendors must stay from schools to one block (about 500 feet) aims to support the new gourmet food trucks which have sprung up recently, by allowing them more places to park in a congested city. However, the change would allow all mobile vendors, including the soda and chips dispensing roach coaches, to park a block from schools and sell to students all of the food that state laws have banned from campus.

Just because kids could walk to a corner store and buy junk food doesn’t mean that cities should undo existing legislation, and provide even more opportunities for kids to make poor food choices. Popular as the indie food trucks are, the interests of small business should not trump the interests of low income students, who should be able to enjoy a healthy free lunch with a side of dignity.

The current 1,500 foot limit, and SFUSD’s efforts to combat the stigma, are working. Almost 3,000 more middle and high school students ate school lunch last year than before the 2007 ordinance was enacted, despite the fact that California Department of Education records show SFUSD middle and high school enrollment has declined by almost 2,400 students in that same time period.

But don’t take my word for it that bringing mobile food vendors closer to schools is a bad idea. I spoke with a number of the nation's leading authorities on school lunch programs to get their opinion on the proposed San Francisco ordinance change.

Chef Ann Cooper, who fixed Berkeley’s school food and now heads student nutrition in Boulder CO public schools, told me, “I believe that to repeal the food truck ban in SF would be to reverse the hard work and healthy food guidelines that the district nutrition services has implemented. Any vending food trucks, whether their food is healthy or not, potentially competes with the food served in the cafeteria, and could be a deterrent to sustainable healthy school food programs.”

Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and Professor of Sociology at New York University, is the author of the seminal food policy book Food Politics; she also writes a monthly column on nutrition for the SF Chronicle. Her view: “If the current system isn't broke, why fix it? Food vendors can go plenty of other places. They need to leave schools in peace to get their school meals programs working, healthy, and functional.”

Amy Kalafa, an award winning filmmaker, nutritionist and mom based in Connecticut, is one of the Two Angry Moms from the film about school food of the same name; she is also the author of LUNCH WARS: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children's Health. She said, “the current ordinance was hard-won and really doesn't impede business, it just doesn't encourage kids to eschew the school meal. If only the people supporting the food trucks, who are putting so much effort into this campaign, were as interested in improving the quality of school meals! I think the extra 1000 feet is great exercise for the students who are motivated to go the distance.”

Mrs. Q, is the nom de plume of a special education teacher from Chicago who ate school lunch with her students every day for a year, blogged about it, and then wrote a book about her experience called Fed Up with Lunch. Asked about shortening the keep-back distance to one block, she opined, “definitely a big thumbs down.”

Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All, told me: “I, too, love the indie food trucks, but I do not think they should be permitted to undermine the National School Lunch Program that we are all working so hard to improve. What troubles me about parking food trucks near schools is that these endearing vehicles inadvertently stigmatize the school lunch.

“In short, they give students with money an opportunity to flash their cash — or debit cards — thus demonstrating their affluence to their peers. If going out to the food truck becomes the ‘cool’ thing to do, the students left behind in the lunchroom are likely to be perceived as ‘uncool.’ The old free lunch stigma that San Francisco has worked so hard to eliminate by removing a la carte meals from the cafeteria will rear its ugly head again.”


Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. She supported the passage of San Francisco's existing ordinance keeping food trucks 1500 feet from public middle and high schools during the day. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.