School Beat: A Tale of Two Cities–Why School Food is Better in Berkeley

by Dana Woldow on October 11, 2007

Berkeley students have enjoyed fresher, healthier school lunches in the past couple of years, since celebrity chef Ann Cooper took over their meal program.

San Francisco’s school food has improved in recent years too, but our schools can’t feed kids as well as Berkeley does. The reason is simple: Berkeley has much more money to spend on school food.

The two districts’ lunch menus look similar – pizza, pasta, hot dog, burrito and chicken in various guises, plus whole-grain bread, fresh fruit and milk. Both districts have banished soda, chips and other junk food.

But in Berkeley, every school has a salad bar (organic in high school), hot dogs are grass-fed beef, and meals are freshly cooked in the district’s central kitchens. In San Francisco, only a few schools have salad bars, although 25 will open this year, thanks to a grant from Mayor Gavin Newsom. Hot dogs are USDA commodity turkey, and the food, while healthy, is mostly brought in precooked and frozen, then reheated.

How can one school district afford to feed needy students organic food and freshly cooked meals, while another just across the bay cannot?

The answer lies in an obscure funding stream from a property tax override that some communities approved in the late ’70s, called Meals for Needy Pupils. Only about a third of California school districts get this money; Berkeley’s share this year is $1.27 for every meal served to a low-income student. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) receives nothing, because San Francisco did not pass Meals for Needy Pupils when it had the chance. In mid-1978, Prop 13 curtailed the ability of school districts to raise funds in this way.

While this money originally went only for student nutrition, eventually the law was changed, allowing districts to use the funds for any purpose. Most started diverting the money to pay for other educational needs, Berkeley included. Then in 2004, the School Lunch Initiative, a public/private partnership between Berkeley Unified, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation and the Center for Ecoliteracy, began an ambitious program committed to “provid(ing) all students with delicious, healthy, seasonal meals made from local, sustainably grown ingredients” (according to their website.) When Cooper was hired to run Berkeley’s nutrition department in 2005, she made her acceptance of the job contingent on Berkeley Unified’s restoring the Meals for Needy Pupils funding to her department.

Today, while SFUSD receives government reimbursement of $2.71 per lunch served to a needy student, Berkeley’s Nutrition Services department gets $2.71, plus an extra $1.27 from Meals for Needy Pupils – nearly 50 percent more than SFUSD. And at breakfast, San Francisco receives $1.83 for each free meal served, while Berkeley gets $1.83 plus the extra $1.27 – almost 70 percent more. Even though only about 40 percent of Berkeley pupils are needy, “Chef Ann” can provide a free breakfast to every child at most schools, with the revenue generated by the needier students covering the more affluent students’ meals. At lunch, Meals for Needy Pupils money helps pay for the salad bars, the organic ingredients, the grass-fed beef and the scratch-cooked meals.

It seems unfair that some children receive better school food than others because of decisions made before some of their parents were even born.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. San Francisco could provide more money for higher- quality student meals. One place to start is with the Public Enrichment Education Fund (commonly known as Prop. H), which authorized the use of city money to help improve the schools. Section 16-123 (e) of the City Charter specifies that money from the third of Prop. H funds allocated for “other support” can be used for students’ nutritional needs. With funding from Prop.H, salad bars could be opened in every SFUSD school, offering all students this healthier fare.

Students shouldn’t have to live in Chez Panisse’s back yard to get a top-quality school meal.

Dana Woldow is the co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and the parent of two recent SFUSD graduates and one current SFUSD student. Contact her at

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