Let’s Do Lunch

by Supervisor Eric Mar & Dana Woldow on October 11, 2011

Did you skip lunch today? If so, then you may have experienced dizziness, headache, irritability, agitation, lack of concentration, even nausea in the early afternoon; all are beginning symptoms of hunger. Imagine being in 4th grade and feeling that way while trying to understand how to convert 32/68 to a percent, or the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”. It’s hard to learn with a growling stomach.

About 60% of San Francisco’s public school students come from families with incomes so low that they qualify for government-sponsored school meals, but over 40% of those low income students don’t take the school lunch. Even among students who do choose cafeteria meals, some throw the entree away uneaten or take just a few bites.

The reasons for this are many – short lunch periods, slow lines, kids more eager to socialize at lunch than eat – but there is no escaping the fact that some students just don’t like the food. Those who skip lunch are far more likely to snack on cheap, high calorie junk food after school, leading to another consequence of poor nutrition – obesity.

San Francisco’s school cafeterias have made enormous progress in the past decade, replacing the former carnival-style menu of corn dogs and french fries, with whole grains, dark orange and leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, and salad bars. Trans fat, MSG, artificial colors, and fried food have been eliminated, sodium has been reduced, and soda and chips disappeared long ago. But students balk at the frozen reheated entrees which are all SFUSD’s limited budget allows, and the few schools which still have kitchens lack equipment to cook. A central kitchen is the most cost effective option to bring scratch cooking to all our schools.

Attractive and appealing fresh meals would undoubtedly lead to more students eating school lunch, with resulting better health, and the higher academic achievement linked to it, but the benefits extend to the community as well. Dishing up freshly cooked meals would create about 100 new jobs (some cooking lunch, some serving it) which could be reserved for San Francisco residents. Food sourced and cooked locally is better for the environment than trucking in over 4 million frozen lunches from the Midwest each year. Better nourished students are healthier, less likely to develop obesity-related complications like diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure. In 2005, it was estimated that SF spent over $25 million just treating children with diabetes through public health clinics and SF General Hospital; undoubtedly that annual cost is higher now. When our kids aren’t healthy, we all pay the price.

That’s why the whole city needs to begin talking about a central kitchen for San Francisco’s public schools. Possible funding could come from a future school facilities bond, but it all starts with the community coming together to support better health, better academic outcomes and a better lunch for our students. There is no better time than now, during National School Lunch Week, to begin the conversation.

Eric Mar is Supervisor of SF’s Richmond District and the parent of a public school student. Dana Woldow served 9 years as co-chair of the SFUSD’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee before stepping down in 2011 to found PEACHSF.org, a free online resource for school food advocates.

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