SFUSD Fumbles High Profile Cafeteria Plan

by Dana Woldow on January 13, 2014

The new issue of Saveur magazine, featuring the annual ‘Saveur 100’ list of the gourmet and world cuisine focused publication’s favorite foodie things, highlights at #49 the San Francisco Unified School District. Wedged between an app that translates a menu’s Chinese characters into English, and an Earl Grey tea flavored chocolate cookie, the SFUSD wins praise for its contract with healthy school lunch provider Revolution Foods, and for the plan (developed by design firm IDEO) to improve SFUSD’s cafeteria experience. Unmentioned is that SFUSD seems to be setting the IDEO project up to fail, especially since, against all expectations, fewer students chose Revolution Foods lunches this fall than when the meals first arrived in SFUSD last spring.

Although the IDEO vision was unveiled last August, to date it has been confined to the 200 glossy pages of a study. Among the first steps required to move from paper to reality are hiring both a project manager to lead the implementation, and a PR/development person to promote the project and raise money to fund it. Given the high profile of the IDEO plan, one might expect that the search to fill these two positions would be high profile as well, with SFUSD casting a wide net to bring in qualified applicants from around the country.

That’s why it came as a bit of a shock when SFUSD’s Executive Director of Policy and Operations Orla O’Keeffe delayed sending out job descriptions for the two positions until late afternoon on Friday, December 20th – you know, the very time at which even those among her contacts who had not already left town for the Christmas break were finishing up their office eggnog and heading into holiday mode for the next two weeks.

I forwarded the job descriptions to some people I thought might be interested, and got back auto replies from virtually all of them that they would be out until Monday January 6th.

Inexplicably, O’Keeffe set January 13th as the deadline for applications. With real life not beginning again for many until the 6th, it meant that people who were not at work, and not paying attention during the holidays, were not even aware of these job possibilities until just a week before the applications were due.

Does that sound like the best way to get a healthy pool of experienced, qualified applicants? Or does it sound more like a way to bury a job posting while simultaneously meeting the technical letter of the law in opening up the process to “everyone”, which is exactly what you would do if you had already identified the person you wanted to hire and just needed to go through the motions of pretending to do a candidate search before awarding the job to your preferred candidate?

Then there is the relatively low salary being offered for the project manager position. Given the notoriously high cost of living in SF, especially the cost of housing and food, it seems unlikely that most people could afford to move here from elsewhere to take this job for the $70-83,000 being offered, limiting the pool of applicants substantially. An expert on school nutrition programs nationwide (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told me that a competent, experienced professional to lead this project in a high-profile, high cost city like SF would expect to be paid in the $125-150,000 per year range.

Another possible sticking point is buried in the “key activities” of the project manager job description. In addition to setting up and running pilots of the various IDEO-suggested improvements, and sourcing necessary equipment, the project manager is also charged with “determining how many regional kitchens [SFUSD] should have and where they should be located.” Regional kitchens would prepare meals from scratch and ship them out to surrounding schools.

A full facilities assessment, which would inform decisions made about regional kitchens, was recommended as a necessary component in the IDEO report, but IDEO did not recommend having a relatively low level staffer do an amateur assessment. This work is typically accomplished by an experienced consultant doing a professional study, which can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 depending on the scope of the work.

Experts in this field include David Binkle in Los Angeles, Steve Marshall in Oakland, Mackesey and Associates in the Midwest, and Lunch Lessons LLC, run by Chef Ann Cooper (formerly in Berkeley, now in Boulder CO public schools) and her business partner Beth Collins.

It is to be hoped that “determining how many regional kitchens [SFUSD] should have and where they should be located” really means “hire someone qualified to do the facilities assessment in a professional manner and pay them the going rate”, and not “use existing SFUSD staff to try to gather whatever information you can, and then with no experience at all in this area, write your first-ever facilities assessment yourself.”

Even if the project manager is only expected to coordinate having the facilities assessment done by a professional (at a professional rate), and not perform the study herself, the low salary SFUSD has set for the project manager position is especially baffling in light of the fact that the entire IDEO project, including much of the startup expense, is being paid for by the Sara and Evan Williams Family Foundation. The incredible generosity displayed by Twitter co-founder Williams and his wife in funding this project despite their young children not even being enrolled in SFUSD schools, is staggering; with luck it will inspire others in tech to support our city’s public schools even if they are not SFUSD parents themselves.

But as the Williams’ have provided an enormous amount of funding to create and present the IDEO plan (one top SFUSD official estimated that cost at about $1 million), and to get the implementation moving, surely there is enough money available to pay for a higher caliber, more experienced project manager than what $70,000 a year might yield? It feels like, after the Williams’ spent generously on the IDEO study, SFUSD is now trying to implement their plan on the cheap.

As to the Revolution Foods meals, the food currently offered to SFUSD students is certainly superior to what was being served before. In January 2013, SFUSD replaced their unpopular reheated frozen lunches from Preferred Meal Systems with freshly prepared Rev Foods meals, and the number of students eating school lunch daily increased by 11%, leveling off at about 23,225 per day in March 2013 (according to data submitted to the California Department of Education.) Even then, the expectation was that, as more student became aware that the cafeteria food was so much better, more of them would choose to eat it.

That’s why it is so disappointing to see that the number of students choosing school lunch has decreased this year, to about 21,900 daily in October (according to the most recent data available from the CDE), even though the food from Rev Foods has remained of the same high quality. Historically, barring a major change (like a new lunch company taking over), the number of students eating daily in October has been a good predictor of daily lunch participation for the year.

While the 21,900 students eating school lunch in the first semester of this year is more than the approximately 21,000 who did so when Preferred had the contract during the first semester of 2012-13, it is fewer students than the 23,225 who ate lunch daily last March after Revolution Foods took over. The expected steady increase in lunch participation just isn’t happening.

The decline in meal counts does not bode well for the future of the IDEO project. The financial projections IDEO included in their report were based on possible scenarios of “no change” in meal counts (defined as 22,000 daily lunches, and 5500 each daily breakfasts and afterschool snack), and of increases of both 10% and 20%. Unfortunately, because of the high cost of implementing most of the IDEO recommendations, the scenario based on flat (“no change”) participation relied on cuts to labor to help contain costs.

Naturally, cuts to labor are never identified as such by IDEO. Instead, the phrase used is “increased meals per labor hour.” Meals per labor hour essentially reflects the number of meals a kitchen produces and serves in relation to the number of hours worked by its staff.

Although calculating official meals per labor hour is a bit more complex than just counting up the number of breakfasts, lunches and snacks and dividing by the number of hours worked (because breakfasts and snacks count as only fractions of full meals), that is the gist of it.

There are only two ways to increase meals per labor hour. One is to keep labor hours the same while increasing the number of full meals served, ie. – get more kids to eat school lunch. Since that isn’t happening, the only other way to increase meals per labor hour is to reduce the other part of the equation – the labor.

Thus, a cafeteria which requires 4 employees working 5 hours each (20 labor hours) to produce a total of 500 full meals produces 25 meals per labor hour. If more than 500 full meals cannot be served, then the only way to increase that number above 25 is to reduce the hours (for example, cut an hour from each worker’s schedule.) Then those same 4 workers, each working 4 hours instead of 5, work a total of 16 hours, increasing the meals per labor hour figure from 25 to 31.25, supposedly saving enough money in the process to fund the costly IDEO improvements without having to generate additional revenue through serving more meals.

Of course, cuts to labor are not popular in SF, where unions are still respected. The idea that a high-end design firm was paid a million dollars to recommend cutting hours from blue collar cafeteria workers’ jobs would not be a winner here. Yet if labor hours cannot be cut, and lunch participation remains flat, then the whole plan falls apart financially.

But here’s an idea that might save everything. The average number of students eating school lunch daily this autumn hovered just below 22,000, well below the 23,225 figure from last March. But there was one day in November when the number, for that day alone, suddenly shot up to 23,000. It was on hot dog day, which is not surprising since for decades, hot dogs have been the single most popular lunch SFUSD serves.

SFUSD officials have raved about the IDEO plan because of its emphasis on listening to what students want, and designing the program that will most appeal to them. On November 19th, the students of SFUSD spoke, and what they said was “We want hot dogs!” If SFUSD wants to get more kids to eat school meals, they don’t need a million dollar study – they just need a million hot dogs. Problem solved!

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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