When we deny kids nutrition, we deny them a future
OPINION My young friend ate school meals in San Francisco for 12 years. With food in short supply at home, he had little choice but to eat cafeteria offerings, but he was disheartened by the rubbery meat patties and limp vegetables that characterize frozen reheated school lunches. That's why he was thrilled to hear that SFUSD wants to replace frozen meals with freshly prepared entrees. Although his school lunch days are over, his younger siblings still rely on the cafeterias. He hopes they will never again be served a meal still frozen in the middle, or the lifeless, tasteless food he remembers.
For years, parents and students have identified "fresh healthy food" as the most wanted improvement to school meals. SFUSD has tried to respond; middle and high schools offer lunch choices prepared daily on site, in addition to the traditional frozen reheated entree. But now SFUSD is ready to move forward with a new meal contract that would ensure all meals at every school are freshly prepared locally.
School officials are bringing the proposed contract, with Oakland-based Revolution Foods, to the Board of Education on Dec. 11. With board approval, students will be enjoying freshly prepared meals as early as January 7th.
Healthier food, happier students and parents — what's not to like? The price, of course. In expensive San Francisco, with above-average food and labor costs, the money the federal government provides for school meals for low income students is already insufficient to cover the cost of serving those meals. Replacing cheaper frozen entrees with freshly prepared offerings drives the price higher still, and despite the passage of Prop 30, SFUSD continues to face major financial challenges.
The board should approve the new meal contract despite its higher cost — because academic achievement, equity and proper nutrition are not unrelated issues. Better food means better nourished students; healthy kids take fewer sick days and are better able to learn. Kids who eat only a few bites of unappealing meals return to class without the fuel they need to power them through an academic afternoon. Hungry students struggle to focus, or even to stay awake; they can be quick to anger (a condition school counselors call "hangry" — angry because hungry) and disrupt learning for everyone.
SFUSD's student nutrition department runs the largest public feeding program in the city; the majority of school cafeteria patrons are low-income children of color, so offering better food is an equity issue.
If the board nixes the new contract, meal costs will still increase in 2013, with food, milk and delivery prices already rising. So SFUSD would find itself paying more for the same frozen meals students reject now.
The SF Board of Education meets at 6pm, in the Irving G. Breyer Board Meeting Room on the ground floor at 555 Franklin Street.
Dana Woldow is the parent of three SFUSD graduates, and has been an advocate for better school food since 2002.