For hungry kids, nutritious school meals can make a huge difference.
When low-income children can't get all the food they need at home, a school breakfast or lunch provides nutrition and energy kids need to learn and grow.
Over the past decade, San Francisco school meals underwent significant improvements, including adding salad bars, offering more fresh fruits and vegetables, switching to whole grain pastas and breads, and eliminating sodas and junk food.
But San Francisco's school meals program still isn't serving as many children as it could.
That's why the Food Bank began collaborating with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Department of Public Health in 2010, hoping to spur efforts to improve the program.
School Nutrition Study
With the district's cooperation, the Food Bank commissioned a study to look at the SFUSD's meal program and recommend ways it could increase student participation and improve the appeal of its menu. Funding for the study was provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, TomKat Charitable Trust, and ConAgra Foods Foundation.
The study was conducted by Prismatic Services, a consulting company with a long track record of advising school districts on improving meal programs. Findings of the study were presented to SFUSD's leadership in May 2012.
Significant problems, but fixable
After conducting extensive interviews, site visits and reviewing district data, Prismatic identified several problem areas that could be improved, including:
- Low participation: Student participation in SFUSD meal programs is the lowest in the state, and well below the average of the nation's 50 largest school districts.
- Low quality meals: Prismatic found that meal quality is not as high other districts, and surveys and focus groups indicate that dislike for the meal options is widespread. School site staff reported that students often throw out all or part of what is served.
- Understaffing: SFUSD's student nutrition program is significantly understaffed, especially in management, which leads to less than optimal efficiency, cash management and food presentation.
- Program Deficit: The SFUSD meal program runs in the red each year, relying on district general funds to make up the difference.
Study makes recommendations
The Prismatic study makes some recommendations that will require additional financial resources and long-term planning to implement, such as:
- Cook meals locally: Currently, hot lunch entrees are prepared thousands of miles from San Francisco, then are 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 costs and improve the quality of food served. Prismatic concluded that SFUSD should investigate ways bring existing, suitable school kitchen sites back into operation, in addition to exploring a partnership with Oakland Unified to share use of the central kitchen facility it is planning.
- Increase staff: For a district its size, San Francisco should have seven management staff to supervise its meal programs, yet it only has two. Hiring the additional staff needed would cost about $560,000 annually, but would pay for itself quickly with reductions in waste and inefficiency.
Prismatic made several recommendations that could be enacted quickly, and for little or no-cost, such as:
- Implement breakfast in the classroom programs: Federal dollars can reimburse the district for the cost of serving breakfast, and making a meal available during the first minutes of the school day has been shown to greatly increase the number of students who eat breakfast at all.
- Offer children choices: Offering elementary students a choice of lunch entrees has been shown to increase children's consumption of nutritious foods.
- Schedule recess before lunch: When children have recess before lunch, the number of children who actually eat their lunch increases significantly.
Moving to action
The Food Bank stands ready to assist the SFUSD in planning and implementing a student nutrition program that provides every child in San Francisco public schools healthy and appealing school meals.