SFUSD Can’t Afford Chipotle Menu on a McDonalds Budget

by Dana Woldow on August 10, 2011

As San Francisco’s students head back to school on August 15th, there is some good news from SFUSD cafeterias even in a bad economy. Stable lunch prices, less sweeteners, fully compostable meal packaging, and healthy meals that meet the USDA’s Gold Standard, are all on the menu for the upcoming year, and even before school starts, parents can fill out their child’s meal application online, eliminating one back-to-school task.

School meal prices are rising nationwide, partly in response to a provision of the federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act requiring schools to start raising meal prices until they are at least as high as the government subsidy for a free lunch; however in San Francisco, meal prices are already that high, so there is no increase this year. For those students not qualified for free or reduced price meals, breakfast costs $1.50 and lunch $3, at all schools, just like last year. Families are urged to set up an online account to pay for their child’s school meals electronically.

For years there have been complaints about the black plastic tray packaging of the hot meals, and students struggled to pierce the clear film which sealed the top. That black tray was biodegradable but not fully compostable; as the number of lunches SFUSD serves every day hovers around 23,000, that was a lot of waste not going into a green bin. During the first month of school, the black plastic tray will disappear, to be replaced by a fully compostable package with easy-peel covering, and over the course of this school year other meal packaging will become fully compostable.

Despite an ongoing deficit, SFUSD has not reduced the quality of school meals. Brown rice, whole wheat pasta and pizza crust, and whole grain breads all are returning. The popular salad bars continue in middle and high schools; elementary schools will see a variety of fresh raw vegetables including baby carrots, broccoli, celery sticks, jicama, cucumber, zucchini, and romaine offered several times a week, alternating with hot vegetables like sweet potato and collard greens. Fresh fruit is still offered most days, with unsweetened applesauce, pineapple bits or diced peaches in juice (not syrup) available weekly. Only low sugar (6g or less) cereal is available with breakfast, and fruit is served, not juice.

All meals have had 0g trans fat for several years, and further steps have been taken to get all high fructose corn syrup out of school meals. Last year, the primary sources of HFCS were ketchup and pancake syrup. This year, the ketchup is HFCS-free, and pancake syrup has been replaced by honey.

Fat free chocolate milk continues to be offered along with 1% white milk, but the chocolate milk has had a drastic sugar reduction, to 19g total sugar, down from 25g a year ago. The new formulation, with just 4g more sugar than the unsweetened 1% white milk, now has even less calories (120) than the white milk (130), and no HFCS. All milk is rBST-free.

More good news about kids and food comes from San Francisco’s Department of Children Youth and their Families (DCYF), which on August 5th completed a highly successful summer lunch program for children 18 and younger. The meals, from premium lunch vendor Kid Chow, were offered free to all youth, regardless of family income level, five days a week for nine weeks at 85 sites around the city. Kid Chow’s meals, which feature organic fruit and local meat, were well-received by over 4400 kids per day who ate them this summer, leading some to ask why, if DCYF was able to afford meals from Kid Chow on the same government subsidy as schools get, SFUSD can’t do the same during the school year.

There are several reasons. The first is that the summer lunch program regulations allow for more efficient operation than the National School Lunch Program. Under NSLP, each child’s meal must be properly claimed (based on family income information from the student’s meal application form) as either “free”, “reduced”, or “paid”. The combined federal and state payment for a “free” lunch is about $3, while “reduced” is about $2.60, and a “paid” lunch brings in just 26 cents. Students who are classified as “paid” are supposed to pay $3 for their school lunch, but not all of them do.

The SF Board of Education passed a resolution in 2009 mandating that no student ever be denied a meal because of inability to pay; these “charged” meals cost SFUSD over half a million dollars in 2010-11. During the summer, all children are classified as “free” regardless of family income, so no one has to check each student’s eligibility as they exit the meal line – all the site has to do is count up the number of meals served, and all are reimbursed at the top rate. DCYF does not have to absorb the cost of lunches eaten by students who should have paid for them, but didn’t.

Kids’ meals not needing to be claimed based on family income means additional enormous savings, because DCYF did not have to employ union labor to serve and claim the meals; they were served by the existing program staff at each of the 85 sites offering summer lunches. The meals were mostly cold food which could be served directly from the thermal delivery bags; no need to refrigerate and then reheat before service, as happens with hot lunch during the school year. Cafeteria labor accounts for about 44% of the total budget of a school meal program; food represents another 44%, and overhead like utilities and garbage collection make up the remaining 12%. The ability to serve summer lunch without labor cost is a major money-saver, freeing up far more funds to be spent on better quality, more expensive meals than would ever be possible during the school year.

More costs were saved because the summer lunch program operated through neighborhood recreation centers, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other organizations with their own sites; DCYF did not have to pay for utilities, garbage collection, pest control, or other overhead expenses that the school district must cover as part of their school year meal program.

With no labor and few overhead expenses, virtually the entire $3 reimbursement (collected for every meal, not just those served to the lowest-income students) was available to cover the cost of the food. What’s more, DCYF received a $160,000 grant from Walmart, which helped underwrite the higher price of the Kid Chow meals, as well as some nutrition programming at the participating sites, and advertising for the summer lunch program.

Despite the salad bars, the fresh fruit and whole grains, reduced sugar, no trans fat, MSG, artificial colors and little to no HFCS, some SFUSD families still feel that the frozen, reheated meals from Preferred Meal Systems served during the school year are not good enough. They would rather have meals cooked from scratch at every school, or at least a fresher meal from a vendor like Kid Chow, that can offer organic fruit and other higher quality ingredients.

The problem is, with labor and overhead taking up such a large portion of the budget, SF schools can’t afford Kid Chow, whose price for the summer lunch was almost twice what Preferred charges. When a pilot to scratch cook lunches on site from fresh ingredients was done at Denman Middle School a few years ago, the per meal cost was more than twice as high as Preferred’s price.

Better food just costs more; it is as true for fast food as it is for school food. Chipotle the Mexican chain that bills its product as “food with integrity”, and stresses sustainability, organics, no antibiotics, and local sourcing whenever possible, sells its burritos starting at about $6 and heading steeply upward. By contrast, McDonalds currently sells its McDouble burger on the dollar menu. No matter how much SF families may want the Chipotle level of quality, SFUSD has only a McDonalds budget to work with.

Dana Woldow, an SFUSD parent for 18 years, has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. She shares what she has learned at peachsf.org.

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