SFUSD puts out bid as part of effort to improve its school food program

By: Mike Billings | SFExaminer 

While local school cafeterias have made culinary strides, 
such as installing a salad bar at Lincoln High School, 
above, momentum is building for a food overhaul.

The San Francisco Unified School District is often recognized as a leader in the effort to improve student nutrition. In 2003, it began phasing out sodas and unhealthy snacks. In 2007, it installed salad bars at dozens of schools. Other initiatives have improved the quality of food in vending machines and increased the number of students who eat breakfast.

But in spite of such progress, the majority of the food the district serves its students is cooked elsewhere, shipped frozen and then reheated at school.

Although some meals are put together at schools using locally sourced foods, more than 90 percent of what students eat is prepackaged, according to Orla O’Keeffe, the district’s executive director of policy and operations, who took on oversight of its Student Nutrition Services Department in June.

The district is The City’s largest public food service program. Every day, it serves more than 27,000 meals and 6,000 snacks to students, according to district records. The department’s budget is nearly $18 million a year.

Current meal provider Preferred Meal Systems is an Illinois-based company that ships frozen, precooked foods from three facilities to sites around the country, according to a January analysis of SFUSD food services commissioned by the San Francisco Food Bank. After such food arrives at the company’s Brisbane facility, it is redistributed, reheated and served throughout the district.

“In San Francisco, of all places, with such a sophisticated food culture, to have food shipped in from Chicago seems to be a dissonance,” said Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit advocacy group.

But now the district is seeking a new provider to further improve the quality of its food and the participation in its meals programs. As its existing contract ended, district officials decided to explore replacement providers, O’Keeffe said. The district ultimately extended the relationship for six months while putting the contract out to bid.

“We want to take it to the next level,” O’Keeffe said.

Getting to that level will take a full assessment of the district’s existing food program, a task O’Keeffe compared to flying a plane while designing a new one. In addition to considering the food itself, the district also will review food procurement and distribution, along with cooking and dining facilities, O’Keeffe said. After all, some San Francisco schools were built without kitchens, and the equipment in many others is nearing the end of its useful life.

“Existing facilities and equipment is one of the impediments to improving the system,” O’Keeffe said.
Such problems are not limited to San Francisco. Barlow noted that residents of Oakland and Sacramento will both vote this November on whether to upgrade their facilities to be able to prepare more food locally. But getting those cities to that point took years and years of studies and advocacy.

Barlow and others familiar with the SFUSD’s sprawling nutrition department say the selection of O’Keeffe and the push by new Superintendent Richard Carranza to expand successful programs indicate a willingness to progress.

“To me, the issue is a genuine commitment within nutrition services to serving a better meal,” Barlow said.
Speaking at a San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association lunch event in September, Carranza said he let the Board of Education know during his job interviews that he’s committed to better school nutrition.

“In a city like San Francisco that is the culinary haven that it is, we should have food in our schools that is commensurate to the food in our community,” he said. “My experience as a teacher, as a parent, as a principal in several districts in several states has always been that if students are not well-nourished in school, they will not learn.”

Attendance, alertness, behavior and academic success all improve with a well-balanced nutritional program in schools, he said. Barlow agrees.

“It is common sense that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” she said.

The connection between academics and nutrition is especially pronounced for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic populations, whose families are more likely during an economic downturn to rely upon schools for their nutritional needs, Barlow said.

The phrase “food insecurity” has  arisen to describe a lack of reliable access to nutritious food, said Teri Olle, associate director of policy at the San Francisco Food Bank. According to the food bank, one in four children in San Francisco is food insecure.

In district schools, about 50 percent of students qualify for free meals because their families’ incomes are below $30,000 for a household of four. Another 10 percent of students qualify for reduced-price lunch, where the benchmark is $42,600 for a family of four.

But offering every student nutritious meals takes money at a time when school budgets are more and more constrained. Even finding the money to study the district’s food service is a challenge.

And indeed, the district’s next step is securing funds to support “the additional data collection and feasibility analysis necessary for the planning process,” a district document said.

Barlow said true change could take a decade.

“Serving fresh meals is not as easy as changing the food that is on the plate,” she said. “It is a complex set of dimensions to managing this. It is a process that requires vision and leadership.”

Carranza said he is committed for the long haul.

“I want a solution for us so when we say we feed our children in San Francisco, in our schools our children are fed well, we all know what that means,” he said.