Results of School Nutrition Study Presented to SFUSD Leadership
May 24, 2012
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Study spearheaded by the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks finds many areas need improvement and suggests options for better service
The study was funded with generous support from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the TomKat Charitable Trust, and ConAgra Foods Foundation.
San Francisco, CA (May 24, 2012) – On Tuesday evening, representatives from the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks and Prismatic Services presented findings of a diagnostic study of the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) school meals program.
Because school meals represent a significant opportunity to provide daily nutrition to low-income children, the Food Bank began collaborating with the district and the Department of Public Health about the idea for such a study in late 2010, hoping to spur efforts to improve the quality of meals served to students and expand participation in the program.
“If hungry kids aren’t eating a nutritious school breakfast or lunch, we’ve missed one of our biggest opportunities to ensure they’re adequately nourished,” said Paul Ash, Executive Director of the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks. “We want to help the district feed high quality, nutritious meals to as many needy students as possible.”
With the district’s cooperation, the Food Bank contracted with Prismatic Services, a consulting company based in North Carolina with significant experience working with school food operations around the country. Over the course of two months, Prismatic visited 44 schools, interviewed varied stakeholders across the city, reviewed reams of district documentation, and conducted surveys, including an online and paper survey in three languages for parents.
Prismatic turned up numerous areas where the meal program could be improved:
• Meal participation among SFUSD students is very low, especially given how many students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. SFUSD’s participation is well below the average of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, and San Francisco is last among all the counties in California.
• Prismatic’s on-site observations revealed that actual consumption of the meals is even lower than participation numbers suggest. Prismatic found that the food, especially the main hot lunch entrée, is well below the taste, variety, and presentation standards of other districts. Surveys and focus groups found that dislike for the meal options is widespread, and school site staff reported that students often throw out all or part of what is served;
• The meal program runs several million dollars in the red each year (the district is projecting a $2.5 million deficit for 2011-12), but the district doesn’t get as much as it should for its investment, Prismatic’s financial analysis found. One often-cited reason for SFUSD’s high spending is labor costs, but in fact the district spends far more on food than labor, partly a result of the current model of bringing in pre-made food from afar.
Some of these areas can be addressed with modest investment by the district, while others will require significant financial resources and long-range planning to address.
Existing practices are far from ideal from both a food quality and a cost standpoint, Prismatic said, and urged the district to move to cooking more meals locally. Currently, hot lunch entrees are prepared thousands of miles from San Francisco, frozen and transported to the district by truck, only to be reheated on serving day.
Cooking in-house has been shown in other districts to reduce food costs and improve the quality of food served, but SFUSD has few working kitchens and has not developed either a long-range capital plan or preventive maintenance plan for its cooking facilities and equipment. Building a central kitchen or regional cooking kitchens remains one option, but it would require a major facilities bond of at least $100 million, Prismatic said.
Before embarking on the complex and expensive task of planning, financing and building its own central kitchen, Prismatic said, SFUSD should investigate other options, including partnering with Oakland Unified, which is on its way to bringing its own central cooking facility online. SFUSD should also assess the feasibility of bringing select existing kitchens at school sites back into operation. The site-based kitchens could begin by cooking for their own students and gradually expand to cook for neighboring schools, eventually creating a system of regional kitchens that could offer diversified food options and greater reliability.
Low- or no-cost improvements
An improvement that could be made with minimal start-up costs and an expectation of quickly recouping costs is serving breakfast in the classroom. Federal dollars are available to reimburse districts for the cost of serving breakfast, and making it available during the first minutes of the school day has been shown to greatly increase the number of students who eat breakfast at all. Encouraging students to start the day with breakfast has in turn been shown to improve academic outcomes and reduce hunger.
Offering elementary students a choice of entrees has also been demonstrated to increase both participation and consumption (currently elementary students have only one meal option unless pre-registered as a vegetarian). The act of choosing increases the likelihood that children will eat what they have chosen, even if they would have rejected the same food when given a “this or nothing” choice.
Finally, another practical recommended by Prismatic that would cost no money and has been shown to significantly increase the number of students actually eating (as opposed to playing) during lunchtimes is to change school practices so that kids at all elementary schools have recess before lunch. Some elementary schools in SFUSD have adopted this practice, but many have not.
Adequate staffing is key
One key area the consultants urged addressing as soon as possible is staffing. Prismatic reviewers noted that based on the size of the district and the number of meals served, industry best practices require seven area supervisors overseeing school cafeterias district-wide. SFUSD has just two such supervisors, and they were hired after the study was completed. Most SFUSD elementary school cafeterias are staffed with only one part-time employee, which leads to less than optimal efficiency, cash management and food presentation, Prismatic said.
“A common refrain was that changes were not possible without investment and the [student nutrition] department had no resources to invest,” Prismatic reviewers wrote. “However, some investments by the district are necessary before better financial performance should be expected.”
Hiring additional supervisors, the reviewers said, would cost about $560,000 annually in salary and benefits, but almost immediately those supervisors would generate $280,000 in reduced waste and inefficiency. Over time, Prismatic added, the district could expect those positions to generate enough savings and increased meal program participation to pay for themselves.
Moving to action
The Food Bank believes Prismatic’s assessment provides SFUSD with actionable recommendations for focused short-term improvements and significant long-term structural changes.
“We want to challenge some of the district’s assumptions about the difficulty of making improvements with existing resources,” Ash said. “The Prismatic study shows us that there are opportunities, and as one of the school district’s major partners, we want to help.”
About the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks
Hunger is a serious problem in our community, with one in five children and adults at risk of hunger in San Francisco and Marin. Every day, the Food Bank sources, collects, sorts, inspects and repackages thousands of pounds of food, then distributes it to soup kitchens, neighborhood pantries, school programs and seniors in need.
The Food Bank serves more than 225,000 people each year throughout San Francisco and Marin counties, and will distribute 45 million pounds of food to the community this year – enough for more than 100,000 meals every day. More than 50 percent of what is distributed is fresh fruits and vegetables. For more information, visit www.SFFoodBank.org.