Dear Congress, We Would Like Better School Lunches

by Dana Woldow on May 12, 2009

Senioritis: an ebbing of motivation and effort by school seniors as evidenced by tardiness, absences, and lower grades (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

The last 8 weeks of the school year are a time when high school seniors traditionally think about prom, blowing off homework, and generally relaxing. Colleges have sent out their acceptances, and the end of the four long years of high school is in sight. This makes it all the more admirable that this spring, a group of seniors in an American Democracy class at San Francisco’s Abraham Lincoln High School have taken on a project to try to improve school meals.

While student groups typically express their dislike of school food by circulating a petition proclaiming that “school food sucks”, or organizing a boycott of the campus cafeteria, the Lincoln seniors decided to get smart. They researched the issue to find out why their school food wasn’t better, and learned that the biggest obstacle was money. The federal government provides just $2.59 for every free lunch served in a school district full of needy students; after paying for labor and overhead, a school district typically would have about $1 left to spend on the food.

The students also learned that the source of funding for school meals is Congress, that the levels of funding are contained within the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), that the CNA gets reauthorized by Congress every five years and most importantly, that the CNA is up for reauthorization in 2009. Spring of their senior year turned out to be a once-every-five-years opportunity to ask Congress to put more money into the CNA so that students could have a healthier and tastier school lunch.

The Lincoln seniors swung into action. They began writing letters to their elected officials to ask for more funding for better school food. One student wrote to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi:

“As a public urban high school, it is understood that not all families are able to provide their child with a healthy and fresh lunch to school. Not only that but some students rely on school lunches as their only source of food for their entire day. Lastly, it has been statically shown that having a better lunch will show better performance in school.”

Another wrote to Congresswoman Jackie Speier:

“I am requesting that the federal funding for school lunches should be increased from $2.59 to $4-5. By doing so, there would be more funding for healthier, larger portions, and fresher food served in school cafeterias in San Francisco. This would increase students’ attention and focus to be educated more and to succeed in school.”

Another told Pelosi:

“I understand that the current amount granted for every lunch is $2.59, but I feel that it is too little to provide a greener, fresher, healthier, better tasting lunch for students from low income families. As a student, I feel the need to help fight for healthier school lunches for my school mates as well as other students from different schools. It is my last year in high school and I only have so little time to do my part with me moving on to college. I feel the urge to try my best to inform people about the problem that their children face. I do not wish to waste your valuable time, but I do ask for your support and assistance in providing healthier lunch. Please vote to increase the federal funding per student for school lunches from $2.59 to $5, every student deserves a lunch that is satisfying and fulfilling.”

Not content with just writing letters, on a recent rainy Saturday morning, the students attended a town hall meeting held by Rep. Speier at a local elementary school. Speaking on behalf of the group, Lincoln Senior Alvin Sng told Congresswoman Speier that they needed her help to get Congress to put more money into the Child Nutrition Act:

“I am urging you to vote on increasing the federal funding of school lunches from $2.59 to $4. As you know, the cost of living in San Francisco is one of the highest in the United States and simply put $2.59 is not enough. This issue is especially hard on the elementary and middle school students who are bound to stick with the school lunch for several years and have no voice in our government.”

Congresswoman Speier assured this young man that she was taking his issue seriously, and she promised that, if invited, she would come to Lincoln and have a school lunch with the students.

Rep. Speier will need more than just a strong stomach to have lunch at Lincoln High School. The cafeteria is a mess, as the entire school is torn up with a several-years-long renovation and building project. Designed with a capacity of less than 1600 students in the original buildings, over time Lincoln has been able to expand that capacity to 2225 by the addition of temporary bungalows. However, the school’s actual enrollment has long exceeded that figure, hitting a high of 2568 in 2002-03, before dropping back to 2498 in the current year.

By any measure, the school is badly overcrowded, with the construction exacerbating the problem, but it still has only one lunch period of about 45 minutes. Students trying to get lunch in the cafeteria often spend nearly all of the meal period waiting in line, then try to stuff in a few mouthfuls of food before dashing off to class again. Those students who can afford to usually take advantage of the school’s “open campus” and leave, to purchase lunch at nearby stores and restaurants. The school administration refuses to add a second lunch period, citing the difficulty this would create for scheduling classes. It is worth noting that two years ago, after repeated complaints from neighbors about students littering their yards with the garbage from their off campus lunches, Lincoln’s Principal did close the campus for several weeks; a second lunch period was added and the school’s class schedule did not fall apart as predicted.

Some at Lincoln have expressed doubt as to whether Congresswoman Speier would really be able to schedule a visit to their school before these seniors graduate in early June; so far her staff has said only “we hope to make it happen, we’ll get back to you.” Perhaps the results of a recent poll conducted by students would help convince Speier’s staff to make this a priority. Trying to determine if there is local support, the Lincoln students asked 471 adults if they would support a $40 per parcel tax to raise $5 million annually for better school food.

Out of 471 total respondents, 47.7% supported the idea of the parcel tax, with 52.2% opposed.
Among property owners, that dropped to 38.5% supporting and 61.4% opposed.
Among renters, support was running at 66.2%, versus 33.7% opposed.

Even without doing any outreach to voters to let them know what the current school food is like, why more money would fix the problem, and why they should care (many studies show better nourished students perform better academically), it is clear that there is already strong voter support for helping students get a better school lunch. Most San Francisco residents are renters, not property owners, and although a parcel tax would require 66% approval to pass, among renters in the Lincoln survey, that level of support already exists.

Not content to let their project die when they graduate next month, the Lincoln seniors are helping to start a school based “Green Lunch Club” to keep momentum for change going into the next school year. They have found a teacher to sponsor the club, and are hoping that their younger school mates will feel strongly enough about better school food, and be encouraged enough by the incremental changes which the seniors have already been able to make, that they will be inspired to join. Rep. Speier’s staff should find a way to schedule the Congresswoman’s proposed lunch with these Lincoln seniors. The efforts they have made to help every student at their school, especially at a time in their lives when they could just be coasting until graduation, deserve recognition and support. Lunch with their Congresswoman could be the ultimate lesson in American Democracy.

Dana Woldow is the parent of two San Francisco public school graduates and one current SFUSD student. She has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/nestwife
For more on school food in the SFUSD, please visit www.sfusdfood.org

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