Catching up on local school food stories from 2012

by Dana Woldow on January 14, 2013

What a lot can happen when you take just a few weeks off, even during the holidays! Here are some of last year’s top local stories which have had recent developments.

Preferred Meal Systems Grinch tries, and fails, to steal SFUSD students’ Christmas.

On December 17th, the SF Board of Education voted to approve the contract, recommended by district staff, for Oakland-based fresh healthy school meal company Revolution Foods to provide a total of 33,000 breakfasts, lunches and snacks daily to SFUSD students. Previously, San Francisco schools had served frozen, reheated meals from Preferred Meal Systems Inc. in Illinois, a leader in the frozen meal market.

However, this time around, SFUSD specified that the contract would be for fresh meals only, not frozen. Preferred made an effort to compete, but fresh food is not their strong suit, whereas it is all that Revolution Foods does; in the end, Rev Foods had the low bid, and won the contract.

District students, parents and teachers were thrilled with the news, delivered like a holiday gift just before winter break began, that upon returning to school in January, students at every district school would be enjoying these fresh tasty meals.

But on December 21st, Preferred filed a petition for writ of mandate to block implementation of the contract, claiming that Rev Foods did not have the experience or the capacity to meet the terms of the contract. Interesting claim, given that Preferred itself is inexperienced in providing fresh meals.

According to the January 2nd declaration of Kendall Baker, Chief Financial Officer of Revolution Foods, Preferred was ordered by the court on December 21st to provide a copy of their petition and other documents to Revolution Foods no later than noon on December 24th. Preferred instead e-mailed the first 6 (of approximately 300) pages to Revolution Foods’ assistant controller, then had full documentation delivered by Federal Express to the Revolution Foods warehouse (which was closed for the holidays) on December 27th. The upshot was that Revolution Foods did not receive the documents until December 31st, a full week after the court-ordered date for delivery, and just four days before the writ would be heard in court.

Next, Preferred objected to the fact that SFUSD allowed Rev Foods to submit additional documentation defending against the allegations in the Preferred petition. Again, interesting strategy by Preferred – bash your opponent and then try to block their response claiming it is an “unfair modification” of their bid.

On January 4th, the Friday before the second semester was to begin with meal service by Revolution, the writ was denied in its entirety. Preferred is out, Revolution is in.

Earlier in 2012, Preferred lost out on a school meal contract in Boston; again, they sued, and lost, and competitor Whitson’s now serves those schools. Without SFUSD, and with the additional loss of the schools of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Preferred now no longer serves any large west coast school district. They have also been accused of “wining and dining employees and providing other perks for preferential treatment” by the Inspector General of Chicago Public Schools, where they provide meal service for some, but not all, schools.

The SF Examiner reported that Preferred “is still deciding whether it will appeal the decision.” Perhaps they want to extend their losing streak even further. Too bad Preferred didn’t take my advice and go away quietly.

Revolution Foods meals prove hugely successful in SFUSD.

When school resumed on January 7th, Revolution kicked off their new meal service with a choice of their “zesty pasta” or cheese enchiladas. Both got raves from students and parents I spoke with, and for the first time in, well, ever, I did not get one single negative comment about the school lunch. Despite the higher cost of fresh meals over frozen, this is what we have worked for years to achieve – meals that students want to eat, instead of meals they want to throw in the trash.

Because of the higher cost, SFUSD will need to work harder to address any potential impact on the Student Nutrition Services deficit. Last summer I suggested ways to find more money for school meal programs, and many of them could help in SF, especially this one: “Meals may be wasted because a class on a field trip is off campus during lunch, but the teacher failed to notify the cafeteria in advance; the cafeteria prepared meals for students who never showed up, and at the end of the meal period, the food was discarded.” Making cafeteria notification of upcoming field trips, as well as getting bag lunch request forms filed on time, should be made part of the other paperwork routinely required for permission to take a class on a field trip. How hard could that possibly be?

Supervisor Scott Wiener shows once again he is no friend to low income youth.

Food truck owners got into a frenzy last spring when Bill Monning (then a state assembly member, now a state senator, from the Santa Cruz/Monterey region) proposed a bill that would have kept mobile food vendors 1500 feet from any school in the state. Although an SF city ordinance currently keeps these vendors 1500 feet from public middle and high schools, the state bill would have extended the territory to include elementary schools, plus private and parochial schools, putting virtually all of the city off limits.

Supervisor Wiener responded by introducing a non binding resolution at the SF Board of Supervisors intended to exempt San Francisco from the proposed state law. At the time, I criticized Wiener for not trying to work collaboratively with Monning to craft better legislation; in the end, the Assemblyman withdrew his proposal.

Then Wiener tried to amend the existing SF city ordinance in a way which would have allowed all mobile food vendors, including so-called roach coaches selling soda, candy and chips, to park within a block of public middle and high schools. That ordinance was never brought to a vote, but now with brick and mortar restaurants continuing to complain about food trucks in the downtown area poaching their customers, Wiener has amended his ordinance yet again, and he brought it back to the Board on November 6th.

In negotiations with SFUSD officials last spring, Wiener was able to get the school district to agree to a proposed reduction from the current 1500 feet, to a 500 foot limit around middle schools, but a 1000 foot limit around high schools. However the current proposal from Wiener, which has been referred to the Board’s Land Use & Economic Development Committee, sets the limit around 7 of SFUSD’s 18 high schools at 750 feet.

I asked Chris Armentrout, Director of Development and Local Government Relations for SFUSD, when the school district had agreed to 750 feet instead of 1000 feet. His response was, “We haven’t changed our position – we have only agreed to support 500’ limit for middle schools and 1000’ limit on high schools.” He added, “It’s unfortunate that it has come to this point, but Supervisor Wiener has made the decision to move forward with this legislation without our support.”

Apparently Wiener is not interested in playing ball with the school district; in his view, “A school is not a fortress. The neighborhood needs to support the school and the school needs to support the neighborhood.”

Actually, schools already do support the neighborhood; in fact, they support the whole community by educating its children, a job made immeasurably harder when those kids are malnourished, or sitting in class hungry.

There is to more to getting kids to eat a school lunch than just improving the food. Making kids feel comfortable enough to get into the lunch line is a challenge even in districts with scratch-cooked meals using locally sourced ingredients. School food reformer Chef Ann Cooper, who overhauled school meals in Berkeley, says, “High school students are some of the hardest to get to eat in the cafeterias. For too long, eating school food has been associated with being poor, and that stigma is hard to shed.”

SFUSD has spent a lot of money trying to undo that stigma, especially for high school students. A $1 million swipe card payment system installed in all cafeterias means no one can tell just by looking who is getting a free lunch. A la carte sales, formerly available only to those with money to pay, have been eliminated, and a new menu of freshly-assembled-on-site choices, which all qualify under the government free lunch program, are available to all middle and high school students, in addition to the wildly popular lunches from Revolution Foods. With mobile vendors prohibited within 1500 feet of middle and high schools since 2007, more of these students are choosing school lunch now than ever before.

Wiener’s proposed legislation could undo all that. When cool kids with money in their pockets are lured off campus at lunchtime to choose from the offerings of roach coaches or food trucks, the same old stigma of “only poor kids eat in the caf” takes hold, discouraging even low income students who have no other alternative to shun the school lunch they should be able to enjoy with dignity.

The last thing SFUSD needs right now is more competition for their new school meal program. The healthy, appealing and highly popular meals now offered by Revolution Foods in all 114 SFUSD schools, come at a hefty price; for SFUSD to be able to continue to afford these vastly better meals for their students, more kids need to choose school lunch, not less, and that includes students at all district high schools.

Supervisor Wiener needs to show more consideration for our city’s low income youth. First he opposed free MUNI service for these students; now he is determined to move forward with a plan which can only increase the stigma of eating in a high school cafeteria. It is low income youth who suffer most from increased stigma, and who benefit most from having a financially stable school meal program that can afford to offer them high quality appealing food.

If his legislation goes forward, it should set the limit around high schools at 1000 feet as the school district has asked, not 750 feet.

SFUSD moves forward with its groundbreaking Initiative to Reform School Food in SF.

Sometimes, people who want to help end up not helping at all. One example is a study of the school meal program commissioned by the SF Food Bank, and partially funded by agribusiness giant ConAgra, which turned out to be riddled with errors, and ended up yielding very little useful information beyond what was already known (like that SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services was grossly understaffed.)

Last summer, in an article about what does and doesn’t help to fix school food, I wrote about two essential studies SFUSD needs to have in order to move forward with sustainable school food reform.

One study would determine what the existing school kitchen facilities are and what the costs would be to modernize those kitchens to be able to scratch cook on site, or build a central kitchen to scratch cook, or both, depending on what the community decided was the best plan. The second study would determine the ongoing costs to staff and operate the recommended facilities.

With both studies in hand, SFUSD could proceed to the voters to ask for funding within a larger school facilities bond for the construction, and from a parcel tax for the ongoing costs to operate the facilities. At that time, there seemed little hope of getting these studies done, but miraculously outside funding has been secured for not one, but both, essential studies.

The Request for Proposal for a food service consultant/designer is being circulated now, so anyone interested in this project should waste no time – the deadline to respond is January 25th. As well, check out the Overview of the Initiative.

Next: Farm Bill kicked forward to September, dairy cliff averted but some families may still lose food stamps, meaning their children will not automatically qualify for free school meals. And why is that, exactly?

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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