School Beat

by Dana Woldow on November 17, 2004

If the phrase “school lunch” conjures images of lumpy “mystery meat”, soggy grey vegetables, and jello, think again. How about Mandarin chicken and vegetables or sweet and sour meatballs with green beans? Improving school lunches may seem like a no-brainer, but in the San Francisco schools, any change comes with its own politics.

The upgraded menu is an effort to feed kids better and entice more students to buy cafeteria lunches. Begun after many World War II recruits were found to be malnourished, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) now feeds over 26 million school children a day. About 60% of the SFUSD’s 59,000 students qualified for free lunch last year based on low family income. Other students pay full price for lunch ($1.50-$1.75), helping meet the program’s expenses. Because lunches must meet federal nutrition guidelines, the school lunch often provides a more nutritious, balanced meal than lunches brought from home.

A year ago, the SFUSD introduced a groundbreaking “no empty calories” nutrition policy developed by a group of parents, nutritionists, doctors, public health advocates, and school staff. Born of a 2003 school board resolution banning soda and junk food, the Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee (SNPAC, in eduspeak) was charged with developing a nutrition policy to accomplish that goal. SNPAC’s initial efforts met with resistance from mid-level SFUSD bureaucrats, but parents lobbied Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. She declared improved nutrition a top priority and sent the policy to the school board, which approved it (in a rare unanimous vote) last June.

Although non-nutritional items like soda are never available in the NSLP lunch, older students may purchase food from an a la carte cafeteria operation unappetizingly known as “The Beanery.” Formerly, Beaneries offered everything from hot wings and french fries to 20 oz. sodas and giant bags of chips. Beanery profits were intended to underwrite the NSLP, but the snack-type food competed with the school lunch, luring children to spend their money on chips and soda.

For years, the school lunch carried a stigma. Most children bought junk food instead, isolating the “poor kids” in the NSLP line. Students too proud to accept the “poor” designation, but without money for junk food, skipped lunch altogether. Participation in the NSLP dropped; management cut costs by serving cheaper food. This drove more students to the Beanery, or to student-run competitive food sales, while kids entitled to free lunch rejected the food as “nasty.” In a death spiral, the district’s Student Nutrition Service (SNS) faced a ballooning deficit.

Then in August 2003, the new policy overhauled the Beanery menu to feature deli sandwiches, chow mein, lowfat burritos, and salads. Milk, water, and 100% fruit juice replaced soda. The goal: to ensure healthier cafeteria food, and to reduce the stigma and encourage NSLP participation by eliminating tempting junk food options.

Participation in the school lunch program rose last year when junk food was banished. The district took another gamble this fall, introducing an improved NSLP menu, at a higher wholesale cost but the same price to students. Kids like the new food, and participation is up significantly over last year.

Benefiting most are the youngest students, those at the elementary level, where the choice is school lunch or bag lunch from home, and the poorest students, whose choice is free lunch or go hungry. Better-nourished students bring other unanticipated benefits. Teachers at Aptos Middle School reported less litter when their school banned junk food in January 2003. At Balboa, the first high school to eliminate soda and junk food, suspensions dropped by 50% from the previous year.

Even as SFUSD administrators began supporting the policy, protests came from middle class parents and some high school students. Irate that their fundraising food sales, run in competition with the cafeteria, have been curtailed, charges of “food fascism” were hurled. Students were reluctant to try other fundraising ideas to pay for their $50,000 proms and school clubs, while parents worried about funding enrichment for classrooms.

Both groups seemed unaware that when competitive food operations adversely affect the bottom line for SNS, the result is felt in the classrooms. Any SNS deficit must be made up out of the general fund. Called an “encroachment”, SNS was recently bailed out to the tune of $1.2 million dollars, funds that might otherwise have paid for more teachers or classroom enrichment.

Everyone wins when school lunches improve. Applying for free lunch or handing a child money is easier than packing sandwiches every day, and the school lunch often costs less. Wider participation eliminates the stigma of the lunch line, encouraging students who previously skipped lunch to eat a healthy meal. Increased revenue from higher participation would help SNS balance its budget, meaning well over a million dollars restored to the general fund. Reams of studies show a link between better student nutrition and higher academic achievement. Better-nourished kids plus a better-balanced budget add up to a big win for the SFUSD.

To learn more about school food in the SFUSD, please visit

Dana Woldow is co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and the parent of two current SFUSD students and one SFUSD graduate.

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