School Beat: The Populist, Radical School Food Revolution

by Caroline Grannan on September 6, 2007

Five years ago, parent activists and staff at San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School fought the SFUSD bureaucracy to begin a pilot project banishing junk food sales, which expanded into the district-wide Wellness Policy.

Back then, SFUSD sold soda, Twinkies, French fries and other tempting but health-busting items in middle and high schools’ a la carte Beaneries. In 2002, when the Aptos principal asked the then-SFUSD Student Nutrition Director to please stop selling soda and junk food at her school, the response was an emphatic no. “The district needs the money.”

Popular wisdom then was that selling soda and junk provided essential income to cash-strapped schools. The soda industry was cutting “exclusive pouring rights” deals with schools everywhere, though the SFUSD school board prohibited such pacts here. In exchange for a chunk of cash, the school would sell only Coke or only Pepsi products, often with a quota that required the school administration to actively push the product. (These deals were satirized on the “Daria” animated series and in a “Simpsons” episode in which Bart got so obese, thanks to Springfield Elementary’s vending machines that he had a heart attack.)

Banishing soda and junk sales from schools required crusading volunteer activists to stand up to the might of Big Soda, to the assumption that these sales were essential, and to a bureaucracy geared toward impeding change. (The school board and then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman supported the changes, which helped them get implemented once parent activists got the momentum going.)
It was an anti-big-business, anti-bureaucracy people’s revolution.

But some students thought what they saw were cold-hearted bureaucrats depriving kids of favorite foods and drinks.

Not all young people realize that health professionals expect their generation to be the first generation in modern history to live shorter average lifespans than their parents’ generation – entirely because of obesity and related disorders. The devastating impact hits hardest in low-income communities of color.

So banishing junk food from schools is a social justice issue. The Wellness Policy puts students’ health ahead of money — a radical, populist and ethically righteous priority.

Some high-schoolers also complain about the Wellness Policy limit on fundraising food sales, allowed only a maximum of four schoolwide days per year. They understand that “competitive food sales” compete with SFUSD Student Nutrition, and often they assume Student Nutrition is profiting.

Actually, Student Nutrition runs at a loss and has to cut corners on the cafeteria fare, including subsidized meals for low-income students. When the quality of the cafeteria meals drops, it’s the most vulnerable children who suffer the harm — the youngest and the poorest, who have no choice but to eat those meals.

So when student clubs run food sales, the collateral impact is to harm the poorest and the youngest students. That’s true social injustice – not what I want my kids to learn at school!

That’s why it’s actually California law (a widely ignored one) that limits school-day fundraising food sales to four per year.

Students have another complaint. They often say the school meals aren’t good enough. (Some even say “terrible.”) Yes, school food has a history of being poor-quality. But volunteers and the Student Nutrition Department have done a lot of work, and while the food isn’t where it should be, it’s improving. Student Nutrition must serve lunch for under $1 per meal – something any home cook will declare to be impossible.

The problem is that Student Nutrition has a pathetic amount of money to work with. The School Board has grasped that it needs to tell the money people to stop ordering Student Nutrition to cut corners at kids’ expense. Yet when Student Nutrition loses money, it cuts into other needs, including classrooms.

Why the financial crunch?

The subsidy from the feds and the state for low-income students’ meals is laughable in a high-cost area like San Francisco.

The threshold for qualifying for subsidized meals (set by the USDA) is similarly cruelly low. That’s why the cost of the lunches to students who don’t qualify as low-income must be kept low.

Under SFUSD’s “no child left hungry” policy, a student who comes to school without money still gets a meal. Other districts either provide a “meal of shame” such as a publicly humiliating cheese sandwich or bowl of cereal — or let the child go hungry.

But that policy also costs SFUSD a bundle.

The true solution would be for the feds and the state to provide realistic reimbursement that covers a decent meal.

The more-realistic immediate solution will be for the city to commit to feeding the community’s children decently. The city has made a step with a half-million-dollar grant providing salad bars and enhanced entrees in a batch of SFUSD schools starting this fall. Activists will continue to push for the city to take on that responsibility permanently, for the sake of the community’s youth.

Caroline Grannan is a parent at Aptos Middle School and School of the Arts, and a volunteer member of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.

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