29 “Between Meals” online column — turns up a lot of recently thawed, bland food matter. But this is not to say that cafeteria meals have not seen progress. Student Nutrition Services eliminated junk food in 2003, signaling a new attention to nutrition on a menu previously dominated by pizza and french fries.
Unlike working conditions for farm workers, school lunches have the benefit of visibility to middle class consumers and activists. Demonstrable efforts are being made to send some of that 90-cent budget toward local food. But with such a limited budget, institutions like SFUSD can only address a small slice of what is important about sustainable food. Yes, efforts are being put toward buying kids local, pesticide-free food that doesn’t further jeopardize their future by using excessive fossil fuel on transportation. But these limited efforts do nothing to affect the social aspect of sustainability — those who produce the food are again left invisible.
The school salad bar program, started in 2007, uses organic and local vegetables in its buffet line as much as possible. The majority of the bars are strategically located in schools where more than half the student body qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches, a response to a Community Healthy Kids survey that put the number of ninth-graders who had eaten a single vegetable in the last week at 29 percent. Student reaction to the bars has been encouraging. Many poor families credit them with increasing the amount of produce in their kids’ diets.
“This program is an anomaly,” said Paula Jones, director of San Francisco Food Systems. “Other schools around the country just don’t see things like this.”
But a generation’s worth of antitax sentiment has limited the variety of the salad bars and other attempts at getting fresh food onto kids’ lunch trays. Due to high labor costs, the school district buys pre-chopped vegetables, severely limiting sourcing options. In the meantime, another generation of low-income kids is growing up on processed, packaged foods. Jones said making sustainable food available to all children is an issue the community must help take on. “The bottom line is, it’s going to take a lot of people talking about this to realize this is not just the school district’s problem.”
Jones’ organization works on getting healthy food to the city’s underserved populations. Nutritionally, this is the salient mission of our age. Despite its current vogue, only 10 percent of Americans buy organic, and shoppers who consistently choose healthy foods usually find themselves spending 20 percent more. Several California studies have indicated that socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods have disturbingly high rates of food insecurity and obesity.
Despite the enormity of the challenge, Jones remains positive. “We lead in this issue. San Francisco is ready, and we have the will.” She counts among the city’s biggest successes in this area the fact that all farmers markets, typically more expensive than average supermarkets, now accept food stamps.
THE FRESHEST FOR THE POOREST
On a bright autumn Wednesday, market assistant manager John Fernandez stands outside his “office,” a white van with the Heart of the City logo. The Heart of the City Farmers Market takes place in a plaza just between City Hall and the Tenderloin twice a week, year-round. Fernandez said it has the highest food stamp sales — second only to that of the Hollywood market — in California and has played a role in allowing low income families and individuals in the area to fit local and organic food into their budget.
Fernandez has worked here for 13 years, and said that the use of food stamps has doubled since last summer. Most of his food stamp customers are families and individuals coming back week after week.