SFUSD counts pizza as a vegetable

by on June 5, 2014

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When San Francisco Unified School District passed its first Wellness Policy in 2004, it won the “Superintendent’s Challenge” award from then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. SFUSD was one of the first districts in the country to completely ban the sale of soft drinks, including sports drinks, in all schools; the state of California did not completely eliminate sodas from high schools until July 2009, and sports drinks are still allowed under state law. The SFUSD Wellness Policy, which includes standards for all food and beverages sold or served to students at school, was groundbreaking in 2004, but fast forward ten years, and the policy, last updated in 2007, has become an anachronism.

As SFUSD prepares to hire a new permanent director for their Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department, where Zetta Reicker has been serving as interim director since Ed Wilkins retired a year ago, it is instructive to look at what that department’s current views are on various issues addressed by the district’s Wellness Policy. It may surprise some people to learn that Congress is not alone in considering pizza to be a vegetable.

A bit of history – the Wellness Policy was written after the SF Board of Education passed a resolution in 2003 ordering the removal of soda and junk food from cafeterias and vending machines, and mandating creation of a policy to accomplish that. I was appointed to the SFUSD committee (now called Food and Fitness) assigned to write the policy, serving as co-chair from November 2003-June 2011, when I left the committee.

Policy updates hampered by budget

The policy was revised several times, most recently in 2007, after which the SFUSD administration decreed, in the midst of a severe budget crisis, that it would consider no further changes that would result in higher costs or a larger SNS deficit. That edict is still in effect.

Few changes can be made in school food service at no cost; better food costs more, adding labor to speed up serving lines costs more, even eliminating the sale of popular (but sugar-loaded) a la carte snacks like cookies and fruit juice can reduce revenue, driving the department deficit higher.

As a result, although the Food and Fitness Committee has been planning possible updates to the policy since 2007, no such updates have been made. One would think that since SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza has made nutrition one of his priorities, the district would be trying to get those proposed updates into a revised Wellness Policy that would once again make SFUSD a leader in ensuring that from Kindergarten onward, all students are learning how to keep themselves well-nourished, fit and active for life.

SNS counts pizza as a vegetable

That’s why it’s so interesting to get a peek at the Student Nutrition Services department’s thoughts on the Wellness Policy. In an April draft document, SNS summarized the Food and Fitness committee’s desired goals for the updated Wellness Policy, and then countered with the SNS take on each topic.

Despite USDA regulations that allow pizza sauce to count toward the mandatory vegetable serving in a school lunch, the Food and Fitness committee proposed adding language to the Wellness Policy specifying that pizza sauce may not be counted as a vegetable.

SNS disagreed, saying, “Pizza does not have enough sauce to count as a full serving [of vegetable] under the new regulations. However, it does contribute to the overall menu planning. Sauce has nutritional value and so should be counted toward the overall vegetable contribution in menu planning.”

Counting pizza sauce towards the vegetable requirement effectively allows SNS to offer a portion size of actual vegetables smaller than what is required by the USDA regulations on the days when pizza is offered. For those who believe that kids would be better nourished by policy that mandates more plant-based food along with the traditional pizza and chicken tenders of school lunch, this is a real concern.

What’s for lunch? HFCS and sodium nitrate

There is also concern about the SNS attitude towards artificial additives. Processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), artificial colors and flavors, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium benzoate, and other unsavory ingredients, banned by the district’s contract with Revolution Foods, will continue to be allowed in district-prepared meals if SNS has its way.

While the Food and Fitness committee recommends that the food standards of the Revolution Foods contract, including the bans, become part of the Wellness Policy, SNS has balked at such an idea, claiming “The current operations with SNS do not allow the flexibility needed to be able to source products meeting all the requirements.”

SNS did a pilot at one small high school to determine the costs of following the Revolution Foods contract standards for its own in house meal production, and found that “it would not be contractually or fiscally possible under the current operations.”

The obvious question leaps to mind: If “current operations” don’t allow SNS to avoid serving artificial ingredients to students, shouldn’t the department be moving rapidly to change their operations? Why would a school district whose Superintendent has said that “Serving fresh healthy food every day…is a priority for us” insist on maintaining the freedom to serve food filled with preservatives and chemicals?

Number of students eating has dropped

Perhaps it is all about the money. SNS has long operated at a deficit, due partially to insufficient funding of school meals by Congress. However, the relatively low number of students choosing to eat school meals has also been a factor driving the deficit.

The contract with Revolution Foods was supposed to remedy that, bringing in more students, and more revenue, to the cafeterias. After Rev Foods began serving meals in January 2013, the number of students choosing school lunch reached a high of 23,225 in March 2013; that represented about an 11% increase over the approximately 21,000 students who ate lunch from the previous vendor Preferred Meals.

Unfortunately, the number of students eating lunch in the cafeteria this year slipped back to about 22,000, where it stubbornly remained all year. The expected steady increase in lunch participation just isn’t happening.

The Revolution Foods meals are already pricey, and the contract allows the company to boost prices by 5% starting in July. The meals are worth their higher cost, but even the prices that have been in effect for the past 18 months drove the SNS deficit far higher last year than what the Board of Education had been told to expect.

SNS documents show the department’s deficit for 2012-13 (seen here in slide 13 as Uniform General Fund contribution) was almost $2.5 million, up sharply from $1.9 million the previous year, when only Preferred meals were served. This year’s deficit is projected to be higher still, so SNS is looking for ways to cut costs.

Cutting costs with commodities

One way, as recommended in the IDEO plan to improve the school lunch experience, is to eliminate Revolution Foods from middle and high school, and instead offer meals at those schools that are prepared by SFUSD staff using low cost USDA commodities. Each school district is entitled to a certain amount of these commodity foods, based on the number of students who ate school meals in prior years; SFUSD’s entitlement was about $900,000’s worth this year.

Revolution Foods makes only very limited use of commodities in their otherwise high-quality meals; this past year they accepted only about $135,000 of SFUSD’s commodities. Having SNS staff create meals from the remaining commodities for middle and high schools seems like a sensible way to go to keep meal costs down at those schools.

The only problem is, SNS tried that this year, with middle and high schools offering Rev Foods 4 days a week, and SNS-prepared meals on the fifth day. Fewer students chose school lunch on SNS-meal day than on Rev Foods days.

Students prefer Rev Foods over SFUSD-made lunch

That shouldn’t surprise anyone who read the evaluation of a pilot SNS did last spring, replacing Rev Foods lunches with meals made by SNS staff for a few weeks at one high school; page 21 of the evaluation shows that the number of students eating dropped by 25% in May compared to when they were offered Rev Foods’ meals in January.

Does using cheaper ingredients really save money if it results in fewer kids eating lunch?

Going forward, SNS is likely to prepare their own meals from commodities for an increasing number of days at middle and high schools; I have even heard it suggested that Rev Foods may disappear entirely from the middle and high schools next year.

That means that if the Wellness Policy doesn’t prohibit HFCS, artificial colors and flavors, sodium nitrate, and all the other unappetizing additives banned in the Rev Foods contract, those students and their families can expect such ingredients to appear in their school meals. And pizza will continue to be a vegetable.

Bon appétit!

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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