New Superintendent Brings New Energy to School Food in SF

by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
September 14, 2012

Image Credit: Flickr user USDAgov

Richard Carranza has been an educator for more than twenty years.  He has seen firsthand how student learn better when they’re healthy and nourished.  And, as a father of two daughters enrolled in the city’s public schools, he’s heard firsthand that students want better food in their cafeteria.  Professionally and personally, he understands that school food is integral to the lives of students and the success of the District.  And, as the new Superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), he is in a position to improve the school meals program.

But, as Superintendent Carranza made clear at a September 6 forum at SPUR, he and the District face significant obstacles. 

Primary among the challenges is funding.  The $18 million budget of the school meals program is supported mostly by revenue from the 27,000 breakfast and lunches as well as the 6,000 snacks that Student Nutrition Services serves each day. In San Francisco, like in many other urban school districts nationwide, the majority of the students eating school meals receive the meals for free.  In exchange for providing the meal, the federal government, in the current school year, will send the District a reimbursement of about $2.90 per lunch and $1.55 per breakfast.  The students who don’t qualify for a free meal pay $3.00 per lunch and $1.50 per breakfast.  The combined revenue of reimbursements and sales is used to cover the costs of the school meals program: food, labor, distribution and management.  In San Francisco, the revenue has not been enough to cover the costs and the District has offset shortfalls in the school meals program by transferring money from the District’s general fund. Student Nutrition Services has begun reducing this deficit in the past two years and may be able to increase efficiency more in the coming years.  But, even with greater efficiency, the District will continue to face a difficult fiscal position so long as increases in food and labor costs continue to outpace increases in the federal reimbursement rate.

Compounding the difficulty of raising revenue is the criteria that defines who qualifies for a free or reduced meal.  The federal government, which sets the standard, has one threshold for the entire lower 48 states, with separate rates for Hawaii and Alaska.  A family of four only qualifies for a free meal if their household income is less than $30,000 per year – regardless of whether they live in San Francisco or a small town in Mississippi. In San Francisco, 50% of public school students meet that threshold, which is a sobering statistic.  But, according to the Food Security Task Force, a family of four in San Francisco could be food insecure even with an income twice that. The result is that many hungry students receive free meals from the District, which has a policy of feeding any hungry student regardless of their ability to pay, but the District cannot receive a full reimbursement for that meal because those students don’t fall within the poorly calibrated federal definition of poverty.

A third significant challenge for the school meals program’s financial picture is that fewer students are choosing to eat the meals.  They are, as the Superintendent put it, “voting with their feet.” The number of SFUSD students eating school meals (called the “participation rate”) is significantly lower than that of comparable districts and has declined since 2009.  And, the fewer students who eat the meals, the less revenue SFUSD receives. 

Despite these challenges, Student Nutrition Services has made considerable improvements in the past few years.  They have, among others successes, installed a point of sale system that expedites meals service and provides valuable data to managers, reduced the paperwork for enrolling families in the free and reduced meals program, and improved the nutritional standards of the food that is served.  This has helped SNS begin to reverse the deficit trend including recently lowering the deficit covered by the District’s general fund from $3.5 million in 2009-10 to $2.5 million in 2011-2012 (see: 2 hours and 43 minutes into the video).

Alongside these improvements, however, kids continue to vote with their feet. Many choose to eat bag lunches from home, off-campus, or not at all.  As a study recently published by the San Francisco Food Bank details, many factors influence their choice: the amount of time they are given to eat, social pressure and stigma, the number of meal options, the cafeteria environment, and, perhaps most of all, the quality and appeal of the food itself.  The report, which was inspired by a goal of “more kids eating better food” at school, provides an extensive list of recommendations for how SFUSD can improve the current program, including calls for: increasing the number of management staff (which the District has begun to do), remodeling of both kitchen facilities and cafeterias, soliciting greater participation in the free and reduced lunch program, and many management suggestions. 

Long-term, though, the question for how to substantially improve the school meals program in San Francisco remains.  Superintendent Carranza reported that the District is beginning a planning process to produce a 5-year strategic plan addressing the issue and is also reissuing its meal service contract for competitive bid among contractors.  The challenges for improving SFUSD’s school meals program are considerable, but these steps and others outlined by the Superintendent are strong indications that there is a new energy, focus and commitment to tackling the issue at the highest levels of the District.