The Greatest School Lunch Superhero You Never Heard Of

by Dana Woldow on May 29, 2013

When San Francisco Unified School District’s Student Nutrition Services director Ed Wilkins retires next month after 16 years, SF’s students will lose a champion for their health and nutrition whose accomplishments rival those of any school food reformer nationwide. Wilkins has led his department’s transition, from selling soda, chips and junk food to serving pricey but delicious healthy lunches from Revolution Foods, by following his one cardinal rule – kids’ health always comes first. Yet most people, even in San Francisco, have never heard his name.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, where his parents owned several neighborhood grocery stores, Wilkins has spent almost his entire life in food-related work, including restaurants, hotels, and corporate food service. Since 1997, his sole focus has been on bringing better food to San Francisco’s schoolchildren.

Up until the early 2000’s, schools across the country, including in San Francisco, sold junk food and sugary drinks in their cafeterias, as well as in vending machines, and for fundraising. In many places, they still do, but not in SF.

In autumn 2002, SF’s Aptos Middle School community proposed a pilot program to remove junk food from their cafeteria and replace it with healthier choices. The goal of those organizing the pilot (myself included) was to track revenue before and after the change. Conventional wisdom said that kids would not buy healthy food, and that cafeterias “had” to sell soda and junk just to break even. We wondered, “Can that possibly be true? Maybe the kids WILL buy healthy food; we won’t know unless we try.”

Permission was secured from the Superintendent to make the change; the choice of what to sell would be left up to the Aptos community. I met Ed for the first time at the initial planning meeting for the pilot. He was not yet running the SFUSD nutrition department, but was an area supervisor for half of the schools, including Aptos.

After the meeting, Wilkins confided in me that he had been sent to the meeting by his boss with explicit instructions to “find out what they are planning and torpedo it”, but that he had no intention of doing that. He explained wistfully that he had long wanted to change the cafeteria offerings. He knew it wasn’t good for kids as young as 11 to be drinking sugar water and eating fatty salty food every day, but he could never get any support within his department. Our pilot was his chance to put the kids’ health first, and he was determined to do it.

Over the course of several weeks, the Aptos cafeteria stopped selling soda and chips, and instead began offering deli sandwiches, salads, yogurt, fresh fruit, and bottled water or juice. Ironically, although all the other SFUSD middle and high schools were selling the supposedly lucrative junk food at that time, virtually all of them were losing money doing it. At the end of the 6 month pilot in June 2003, Aptos was one of only two schools to end the year in profit. The next year, the Aptos menu of choices was rolled out to every middle and high school, and sodas and junk food were gone for good from SFUSD cafeterias.

Cafeteria revenues district wide continued to rise over the next two years, proving that schools didn’t need to sell junk food to make money. When the boss who had instructed him to “torpedo” the Aptos pilot retired in 2005, Wilkins was made director of the nutrition services department.

The federal school meal program has long been underfunded by the government, especially in high cost of living areas like SF, but Wilkins found ways to make one improvement after another. Grant money from SF’s Department of Children Youth and Families helped salad bars open at dozens of schools. Grab n Go breakfast, begun as a pilot at Balboa High School, proved so popular that, thanks to start-up grants from the California Department of Education, it now operates at almost every middle and high school, ensuring more students start the day with a healthy meal.

Retired Balboa principal Dr. Patricia Gray told me, “Ed Wilkins helped me to educate the students, teachers, staff, and their families about multiple ways to have a healthy body along with an educated mind. I am forever grateful for his invaluable assistance.”

A point of sale (POS) swipe card system was installed in every cafeteria, replacing cash and ensuring confidentiality for students receiving government-paid meals. A la carte sales, which even when healthy have the unintended side effect of stigmatizing low income students, were replaced by several daily complete meal choices, all qualified for government payment, and all available to every student.

“Ed has made dramatic and long lasting changes to school meals (San Francisco’s largest food program) including eliminating the almost 4 decade old competitive food sales that reinforced class inequities,” says Paula Jones, from SF’s Department of Public Health, who has collaborated with Wilkins on student nutrition projects for many years. “His leadership and commitment to building a better and more equitable school meals program has ensured that SFUSD students will no longer be stigmatized by eating in the cafeteria,”

This year, Wilkins was finally able to fulfill his decade-long mission to bring a high quality and delicious hot lunch to all students when he negotiated a contract with Revolution Foods. Longtime school board member Jill Wynns has nothing but praise for him. “Ed has been an outstanding manager for our food service at a time when we were making significant demands on our staff and leadership,” she said. “He has been a leader himself, showing us that it is possible to make improvements that have huge benefits to our students. We will miss him.”

On the eve of his retirement, I asked Wilkins to share some of what he has learned over his lifetime in food service.

Q. – What do you see as the most important issue in school food today?
A. – Lack of government funding for the school meal program. Having too little money to spend on nutritious food for students and fair wages for employees means having to make compromises we shouldn’t have to make if we are going to be able to prioritize children’s health. Then, from the school district’s perspective, when money must be transferred from the general fund into student nutrition just to balance the books, it gets called an “encroachment”, which shifts the focus away from the importance of nutrition. Suddenly it is all about the “encroachment” and not about “feeding hungry kids.”

Q. – To what extent do “competitive” foods (including fundraising food sales, class parties, school wide pizza celebrations, etc.) affect your ability to offer healthy food in the cafeteria?
A. – Every ounce of “competition” with the school meal program not only results in a loss of revenue, but invariably ends in program costs that cannot be mitigated. A school meal program runs for only about 180 days; if there is lost revenue for even one day because a whole school was eating donated pizza to celebrate higher test scores, then that lost revenue cannot be recouped. That’s money that could have been spent on program improvements.

Q. – What advice do you have for parents who want to start trying to improve the food in their own child’s school?
A. – First understand what is truly happening and what the real needs are in a school meal program, join forces, and be able to recognize the myths and misinformation that sadly are everywhere.

Q. – Some school food reformers claim that any school district can improve their food without additional financial resources if they just have the will to do so. Agree or disagree? Why?
A. – Totally disagree; better, more nutrient rich food just simply costs more. Anyone who has walked into a grocery store should recognize this.

Q. – In your opinion, how much should the government give schools to cover the cost of a free lunch?
A. – Realistically, in a high cost area like San Francisco, to provide nutritious food and pay our employees fairly, we would need about $6 per lunch.

Q. – You have accomplished so many things at Student Nutrition Services; of which are you most proud, and why?
A. – I advocated for many years, starting as early as 1998, for a point of sale system. Seeing that to fruition, and especially getting it up and running in every single school in just one year, tops my list. The POS opened the door to other important program improvements. Bringing an end to cash based a la carte, moving to fully reimbursable meals (made possible by the POS) also tops my list; it’s about access and equity, social justice. And finally, bringing Revolution Foods to the kids. Their ingredients and preparation go way beyond what is required by government regulations, and their food is truly amazing.

While the general public may never have heard of Ed Wilkins, those who have worked closely with him recognize the magnitude of all he has accomplished. School board president Rachel Norton told me, “I am hugely grateful to him for taking on the unglamorous work of haggling over pennies to ensure kids get whole grain hamburger buns instead of those made with processed white flour, or fresh fruit instead of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. We would not be where we are in improving the quality and nutritional value of food served in San Francisco’s public schools without Ed.”

Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, a nutritionist with the SF Department of Public Health, served many years with Wilkins on SFUSD’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee. She said, “When he became SNS director, it marked the beginning of an era where innovation, creativity and the ability to make lasting changes started in earnest. What has made Ed Wilkins stand out is his commitment, character, professionalism and unfailingly good manners.”

Perhaps Ed’s legacy is best summed up by SFUSD deputy superintendent Myong Leigh, who has worked with Wilkins longer than most other top district brass. “Under Ed’s leadership, SNS has implemented huge improvements despite extreme challenges, and all our schools are benefiting from his talents and efforts,” he said. “I will really miss having him as a colleague.”

In the future we may look back at 2013 and recognize it as the year SFUSD finally got everything right with school food. Thanks, Ed – you’ll be a hard act to follow.

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

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