A social media post about cold chicken and warmed-up mac-n-cheese on a Facebook group for San Francisco Unified School District parents prompted robust discussion this week over food offerings for public school kiddos—a complaint that’s easy to find outside of San Francisco.
Here’s what to know:
How often do students eat school food?
SFUSD projects that by the end of this year, it will have served 8.3 million meals to its 49,000 students. That’s up from 7.3 million pre-pandemic, before Student Nutrition Services ramped up service to provide free meals for all students during school closures rather than just low-income students who typically qualify. California stepped in to continue the offerings for all students as the federal reimbursement waiver ended.
By SFUSD’s count, that makes Student Nutrition Services the largest food provider in the city.
Currently, 12% of school meals are made from scratch, 19% are freshly assembled, and the rest are packaged meals provided by vendor Revolution Foods. That compares to 12% made from scratch and 13% freshly prepared on site in 2020.
Despite reports of dissatisfaction and an attempt to select a new provider, SFUSD renewed a $11.5 million annual contract with Revolution Foods in early 2020 for up to five years. The overall SNS budget is about $32 million per year.
What issues do students and families have with it?
Lindsay Brennan, parent of two children in San Francisco Unified School District, raised health concerns of improper food handling and food waste. While her children don’t typically eat school-provided meals, she noticed her son having stomach problems on the days he did.
Since the fall, she’s noticed complaints from her children’s fellow students at New Traditions Creative Arts Elementary School about the food, seen heavily through comment cards. Brennan noted chicken served at an incorrect temperature and food packaged in plastic reheated that renders it unappetizing and thrown out.
“Bad school food has been the story since the beginning of time,” Brennan said. “If these kids aren’t eating and don’t have proper nutrition, that’s the basic need. Before you can address the academics, let’s talk about filling their bellies with nutrition.”
Other parents, however, say their children may complain some days but most of the time it does the job. High schools seem to run into this issue less, as they are more capable of serving fresh food.
The instance of chicken at New Traditions was investigated and determined to be cooked at the correct degree, the district said. Ultimately, SNS Executive Director Jennifer LeBarre said they operate under Department of Public Health requirements and are audited regularly—including this week, which yielded no issues.
What does the issue come down to?
Kitchen infrastructure, LeBarre said. Many San Francisco schools were built without kitchens, before schools were expected to provide food. That limits the ability to prepare food and adding kitchens is expensive on its own.
“Without a kitchen, you can’t provide the type of meal you want to do,” LeBarre said. “That’s a lot of infrastructure upgrades when you consider the age of some of our schools.”
About 20 schools, largely high schools, are able to cook fresh food like waffles with blueberries with more recently made upgrades through some bond funding. That includes a mini central kitchen of sorts that opened in 2019 at Mcateer, serving The Academy, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and the district’s early education sites.
Recently, 37 schools got new refrigerators thanks to a grant, LeBarre said. A.P. Giannini High School benefited from upgrades this year, boosting demand from 400 meals a day to 1,000 each day.
What changes are coming?
In the fall, eight elementary schools will move to bulk service and away from prepackaged meals. More schools will be identified for upgrades to allow the same change. Through the increased California funding for schools and school meals, SFUSD received $1 million for kitchen upgrades and could potentially receive more under the budget signed in June.
A handful of schools will receive new ovens, though ongoing pandemic effects on the supply chain and higher demand for campus kitchen equipment mean significant delays. The district ordered a new oven for New Traditions last fall that has yet to arrive.
SFUSD will also hire a project manager to take on infrastructure improvements, also financed by a grant. More sites will be identified for minor upgrades to be in place for the new school year in the fall.
“It takes time to right the ship,” LeBarre said. “We really have made some substantial progress just in the last four years. We will get there.”
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