Devil Is In the Details For IDEO’s School Lunch Fantasies

by Dana Woldow on August 12, 2013

Design firm IDEO recently invited some SFUSD community members to learn about The New Lunchroom, their vision for a “financially-sustainable system that engages students in eating good food.” I had high hopes that IDEO would produce groundbreaking, disruptive ideas that no one had ever thought of before, injecting new energy into the tired old concept of school lunch. But the ideas we saw were not new, and due to a lack of any supporting numbers, I came away feeling more baffled than energized.

I’ve explained previously about how IDEO’s “design thinking” process sparks creativity by combining ideas from many different stakeholders; in this case students, school staff, parents, food professionals, representatives from local non-profits, and others all volunteered their time and ideas to the process.

An elaborate and expensive-looking installation at Everett Middle School displayed their best ideas, which were then explained by IDEO and SFUSD staff. IDEO is trying to build community support for their vision before the plan is brought before the Board of Education in September.

It’s okay that the ideas presented are not new; while it would have been exciting to hear some fresh thinking from IDEO, they included plenty of good ideas, like the central warehouse, the concept of multiple locations to get a meal, the Grab n Go lunch, and the need to tap into financial support from the community. All these concepts have been raised repeatedly at SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) over the years, and are worth another look. Other IDEO suggestions, like recess before lunch, and meal vending machines, are already happening in some SF schools, while still other good concepts presented are being tried in other cities and could be copied here. The lack of originality is disappointing, but that doesn’t mean that the vision is not inspiring.

More troubling is that the numbers behind the vision were not provided, and may not even exist yet. Questions regarding details of the plan – for example, my asking how many more students would be expected to eat school lunch as a result of the proposed changes – were met with blank stares.

The IDEO staffer leading the project actually asked me why I would ask that question, and I don’t think she was being ironic. Despite the fact that she had just said that increasing the number of kids eating lunch (called “participation”) was the primary way for the vision to pay for itself, she didn’t seem to understand that you can’t call the plan “financially sustainable” without a realistic idea of how much participation, and thus revenue, will increase.

SFUSD Director of Policy and Planning Orla O’Keeffe indicated that numbers for different scenarios for increased participation were being crunched, including one in which the number of kids eating school lunch remained the same (she called it “status quo.”) But surely one doesn’t need a PhD to realize that the current status quo participation, which is expected to result in a deficit of about $2.5 million for SNS for 2012-13, is not going to be able to underwrite the additional cost of any of IDEO’s vision?

The centerpiece elementary school plan to serve lunches “family style” certainly could not happen without additional expense. In traditional cafeteria service, students wait in line to pick up their meal, then proceed to a table to eat. Using family style service, students entering the cafeteria go directly to their 8 person round table, and student “table captains” wearing chef’s jackets bring bowls of food to the table, where students serve themselves. The IDEO plan also has bowls of vegetables and fruit already on the table, so that students can begin eating their grapes or zucchini sticks while waiting for the entree to arrive. No changes are proposed for the family style food, just for the way it is served.

The problem is, family style meal service requires what USDA regulations call a “supervising adult” at each table to offer the full serving of each food item to each child, and later to “encourage additional portions and selections as appropriate” for those students who took just a small taste the first time around. Because of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, another rule is “the adult supervisor must ensure that each student selects at least a ½ cup of fruit or vegetable or a combination of both during the course of a family style meal service.”

In other words, there would need to be enough adults in the cafeteria to make sure that every single child took the proper amount of food, and to actively encourage those who didn’t to take more. And those bowls of fruit and vegetables on the table when the kids first sit down? Someone needs to be at each table right from the start to observe who is (and who isn’t) taking their mandatory serving of produce. It’s hard to imagine getting this done accurately with just a couple of cafeteria workers.

The SFUSD staffer who explained the family style meal service described the student table captains who would bring food from the kitchen, and also briefly mentioned that “monitors” would make sure everyone took the required amounts of food. I asked for clarification on that point: surely 8 year olds were not going to serve as “monitors” overseeing whether their classmates were complying with USDA regulations?

We were then told that the plan was based on increasing the number of cafeteria workers at each of the more than 70 elementary school, although no one seemed to know how many additional workers would be needed at each school. This increased labor could potentially involve hundreds of new workers in addition to the 250 already employed by SNS; the cost of that would be astronomical.

It is a lovely vision: students sharing a communal meal at small tables, with an adult at each table to supervise, modeling good behavior and guiding conversation, perhaps even delivering some nutrition education. However, while family style service would undoubtedly enhance the experience for those students already eating school lunch, there is no evidence that it would attract new students into the meal program to pay for the additional labor costs.

The plan is strikingly similar to a small Philadelphia-area pilot called Eatiquette, underwritten by the Vetri Foundation and operating in 2 charter and 3 private schools. At those schools, students eat at an 8 person table with one adult per table; they are able to achieve that adult/student ratio by having teachers and parent volunteers serve as the “supervising adult.” That 8-1 student/adult ratio is what is required by the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) regulations, the meal program under which most family style service operates.

Eatiquette sounds great, but may not transfer to regular public schools. Privates and charters are well known for employing non union teachers; in 2009-10, there were almost 5,000 US charter schools, of which only about 600 were unionized. Those non union teachers can be required as part of their regular duties to serve as “supervising adults” during their lunch period, despite the fact that a 2012 report from Teach Plus, a non-profit seeking to improve teacher quality and retention, found that assigning teachers additional chores such as lunch duty is a “threat to teacher retention and high-quality instruction.”

Some SFUSD elementary teachers may not mind being assigned lunch duty 180 days a year, but trying to compel every K-5 teacher to supervise daily in the cafeteria (especially without additional compensation) is likely to be a non starter. Teachers often spend their lunch break waiting in line to use the school copier, correcting papers, or setting up for their afternoon lesson; adding lunch supervision to their burden hardly seems fair.

As for parent volunteers, a school serving 100 lunches a day would need 10-12 volunteers every single day for 180 days to achieve an adult/student ratio similar to Eatiquette. Most SFUSD parents work and are not available for daily lunch duty. Yet without enough “supervising adults”, it’s hard to imagine how SNS would be able to guarantee compliance with federal meal regulations around portion size and mandatory fruit or vegetables.

That compliance is essential for SNS to be able to receive government money to cover the cost of meals served to students who get free or reduced price lunch. These payments make up the bulk of the SNS operating budget, and can be withheld if rule violations are observed during the mandatory every-three-years inspection of cafeteria operations by the California Department of Education. In fact, that is exactly what happened to SFUSD in 2009, when the CDE withheld over $11 million in federal meal funding for almost a year, after some minor program rule violations were observed.

As with any major change, the devil is in the details. IDEO wants to engage the community with a vision first, and then figure out the details of how to make that vision a reality later. While that approach may work when designing a user-friendly classroom chair, it is much more risky when planning changes to a heavily regulated federal program which is also chronically underfunded. Cheerleading the idea that anything the community supports can be achieved is naive at best and financially reckless at worst.

Unless of course IDEO has located a permanent, unlimited outside funding source to pay for the vision. If that is the case, then budget planning using imaginary numbers won’t matter, because with unlimited funding, the bills can be paid even if more kids don’t eat school meals. But in order for the vision to be truly “financially sustainable”, as we were repeatedly assured it was, changes need to generate sufficient income to cover their own costs.

The IDEO presentation was museum quality, impressively displayed on gigantic corrugated cardboard walls, but that polished display makes the project appear farther along than it really is. Although many audience questions about meeting government regulations were answered with “We are working with the CDE on that”, someone close to the project confided that thus far there have been only a few hasty phone calls to the CDE, and no formal meeting has yet taken place.

At a presentation for district administrators, when a school board member asked specifically about the family style meal service, SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza reportedly brushed off those concerns by assuring the audience that SFUSD has “friends in high places.”

Yet when I asked the CDE whether having friends in high places would allow the district to skirt regulations, a spokesperson responded, “The laws are clear that all school districts that participate in state and federal meal programs must comply with state and federal laws.” Perhaps Carranza was being ironic, as those “friends in high places” were nowhere to be found when the CDE withheld that $11 million in 2009.

What IDEO has shared with the public to date is equivalent to a glossy travel brochure full of enticing photos that fuel the imagination and the lust for travel, but with no information on cost, or on the destination’s political climate. Just as you wouldn’t commit to traveling to the moon without knowing the price, or even whether you were healthy enough to survive the trip, so SFUSD will need a lot more information before making an informed decision on moving forward with any of IDEO’s suggestions.

Presumably more hard numbers will be available by the time the plan is brought to the Board of Education. It is all very well to claim the vision is “financially sustainable” without providing specific numbers, but where have we heard that claim before? The school board should dive deep into the numbers to ensure that vision of financial sustainability is not just a mirage.

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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