Is IDEO’s Vision Harming San Francisco’s School Lunch Program?

by Dana Woldow on November 12, 2013

Maybe it is a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Since early spring, SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department has been concentrating on the lovely vision for school meals proposed by design firm IDEO. Most of IDEO’s concepts require extensive additional funding, and must be piloted (“prototyped”, in design speak) for many months to determine if they are feasible at all. It will be a long time before any of IDEO’s plans might be made real in local schools. Meanwhile, SNS has stopped focusing on the food it currently serves to students, or just about any other aspect of its meal program.

IDEO, hired by the family foundation of new Twitter billionaire Evan Williams and his wife Sara, proposed a variety of changes meant to engage more students with school food. But the IDEO project has demanded the fulltime attention of SNS interim director Zetta Reicker for most of 2013, leaving the current school meal program to languish.

Although the introduction in January of fresh healthy meals from pricey vendor Revolution Foods drove a spike of about 11% in the number of students choosing school lunch last spring, the start of the current school year saw that number drop back to close to where it was before Rev Foods arrived. With the end of the first semester less than 6 weeks away, there is no evidence that the number of students eating school meals has reached last spring’s levels.

Marketing the new meals was part of the Rev Foods contract, but families I spoke with have not observed any such marketing to date. Salad bars for elementary school are not part of the Rev Foods model, but there was a plan to offer an entree salad once a week; that has not happened. The original limited menu, which repeats every couple of weeks, was supposed to include new choices this year, but the current menu shows the same zesty pasta, BBQ chicken sandwich, pizza, and other entrees which have been on offer since January. The only new entree for November is the one-off Thanksgiving holiday meal of roast turkey.

To get more kids engaged with school food, SNS should make sure those promises – more variety in the entrees, more salads, and more promotion of the meals – are being honored. Why isn’t this happening?

One IDEO proposal is an expansion of the meal vending machine project that SFUSD piloted at Lincoln High School several years ago. The machine, stocked by cafeteria staff each day with complete meals including fresh produce and milk, can be used by any student via their cafeteria swipe card. Supervisor Scott Wiener was so impressed with the pilot project that he pledged to find money in the city budget for several more machines at additional high schools.

According to the minutes of the SFUSD Food & Fitness Committee, “SFUSD SNS will receive $50,000 in the 2012-2013 school year for reimbursable vending machines thanks to Supervisor Scott Wiener and the Department of Children, Youth and their Families.” Yet I was unable to find a single school other than Lincoln with a meal vending machine in place.

If the money is there, why isn’t SNS using it to purchase, install, and begin using the machines? Long cafeteria lines have repeatedly been identified as a major reason why older students skip school lunch, so offering a quick way to grab a healthy meal from a machine should be an SNS priority. As the expansion of meal vending machines is one of IDEO’s proposals, it feels like SNS would rather “vision” this aspect of the plan than make it a reality, even given the resources to act.

Last year, SNS applied for government grants for 4 Superintendent’s Zone schools that had expressed interest in getting more students to eat school breakfast. The grants would pay for a Second Chance Breakfast program at 3 elementary schools, allowing students who arrive late to school (often because of buses that run late) to start their day with a healthy meal. At one high school, the grant would pay to start a Grab n Go breakfast, including the purchase of a mobile cart that could also be used for Grab n Go lunch.

SNS learned in June that they did get the grants, but thus far no breakfast expansion has happened. The benefits to children of eating a healthy breakfast are undisputed, and more kids choosing school breakfast drives more revenue for SNS as well. Again, with the money secured to get these programs started, what is the holdup?

Then there is the issue of meal applications. The government provides money to cover the cost of school meals served to low income students; in order to qualify, families fill out a meal application form. SNS makes the form available online at the beginning of August.

While SFUSD students who received free meals last year can continue to get free meals for the first 30 days of the new school year (to allow time for this year’s applications to be processed), meals served to students new to the district cannot qualify for government payment until the meal applications are processed.

Unlike school districts that serve a “meal of shame” cheese sandwich to students with no money and no approved meal application, SFUSD feeds all students in the lunch line a full meal. Those without money or free lunch eligibility can “charge” their meal, but these unpaid meal charges, which SNS must try to collect later, have in recent years run to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Already by the start of October, unpaid charges had reached 6 figures; no doubt much of that was due to Kindergarten or other new students whose meal applications had not yet been processed before school started, but who nonetheless got into the lunch line and were served.

SNS could make a greater effort to reach out to Kindergarten families in the weeks of August between when the meal application goes online and when school starts. But that would require someone to actually be focused on the issue. Early August was when IDEO was hosting their public presentation called The New Lunchroom, and that’s where SNS interim director Zetta Reicker and her boss Orla O’Keeffe were every day – working on the IDEO project, not tending to SNS business.

All of these factors taken together paint a disturbing picture of a school meal program being left to languish so that the IDEO plan can be brought in to “revitalize” it.

There has certainly been energy put into promoting the IDEO project, even though it is years away from any kind of widespread implementation, and the true costs are still unknown. Courtney E. Martin, a communications specialist and co-founder of Valenti Martin Media, has recently written opinion pieces about the initiative for the New York Times and the SF Chronicle.

Martin’s puff pieces ignore the enormous cost of implementing the appealing innovations proposed by IDEO, such as family style meals for elementary schools, where students would dine at small tables with adults supervising and guiding conversations about nutrition. The NYT article quoted the Principal of SF’s Gordon Lau Elementary school asking to have the plan piloted at his school, one of the largest in SF with about 700 students.

Not mentioned was the fact that USDA regulations for the kind of communal dining IDEO proposes require an adult for every 8 students at the table. Even if only half of Lau’s 700 students ate in the caf, in two shifts of 175 each, that would require more than 20 cafeteria workers in a school that currently has about 2. Where is the money to pay for that?

Martin’s Chronicle article touts the “human centered design” of the IDEO plan as being superior to the more traditional planning done by SNS, which has been based on facilities capacity and budget constraints. IDEOt Sandy Speicher is quoted as saying “We had a conversation with the district leadership and said, ‘What if, instead of framing it in terms of equipment and budget, we create an experience that the students choose and thrive within?’” SFUSD’s Orla O’Keeffe, who oversees SNS, chimes in “IDEO helped us get out of our adult way — to shift from being systems centered to actually being student centered.”

Yet IDEO’s innovations (some of which are recycled ideas repeatedly proposed for years within SNS) include building a community kitchen, and renovating cafeteria and school kitchen spaces – you know, those boring old adult-centered facilities and equipment issues that are supposedly blocking the way to innovation.

Martin’s NYT article describing the IDEO presentation to the SF Board of Education on September 17 notes an “unusually full house”, although the several dozen attendees didn’t even come close to the overflow crowds that pack BOE meetings for hot topic like teacher layoffs, the student assignment process, or changes in hiring practices for school construction projects. Most were folks from IDEO or those paid to work on the project, including students and cafeteria workers who received a stipend or gift card for their participation.

That’s not to say that if the meeting had been properly promoted, it might not have drawn a larger crowd. A “save the date” announcement of the meeting, which was supposed to have been sent by SNS to the larger community, never went out, not even to members of SFUSD’s own Food & Fitness Committee. As a result, the only public comment heard at the meeting was from those involved with the project. Not exactly authentic community engagement.

After I wrote about the meeting, I heard from a distraught parent asking if I had contact information for anyone working on the IDEO project. She wrote, “Many parents at my daughter’s school were upset that they had no opportunity for input and that the meeting was a “special” one with only 24 hours notice [actually the meeting was noticed 72 hours in advance as required]. They feel — and I agree from my interactions with nutrition services — that their voices are not heard. We’d love to reach out to IDEO directly as a school community.”

Martin’s New York Times article asks the provocative question “What if the secret to getting kids to eat healthier is to stop focusing on food?” Unfortunately, the IDEO plan doesn’t “stop focusing” on the food – it actually calls for reducing the quality of the food, by making full use of the low-cost government commodities that have traditionally given school lunch programs such a bad reputation.

This would mean not only using more commodities in the SFUSD-prepared choices for middle and high school students, but also possibly more brown box commodities – like frozen vegetables or surplus cheese – used in the otherwise high-quality Revolution Foods meals (already $135,000 in commodities are planned for use by Rev Foods this year.)

Revolution Foods hasn’t previously used commodities, because generally they don’t meet the company’s high standards. In more than a decade of advocating for better school food in SF, I have surveyed, interviewed and worked with at least as many students as IDEO did for their project. Not one student ever told me that what they wanted was lesser quality food, and I am willing to bet they didn’t tell IDEO that either.

How long can Student Nutrition Services afford to neglect their existing program while chasing IDEO’s pie in the sky vision? What if the secret to getting kids to eat healthier food is never to stop focusing on the food?

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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