Will IDEO’s school meal experience fly?

by Dana Woldow on June 18, 2013

I spent an hour recently at the offices of IDEO, the design firm hired by the Sara and Evan Williams Family Foundation to lead an initiative to reform the school meal experience in San Francisco. Those working on the project are spending the spring and early summer talking to a variety of stakeholder groups – students, parents, school staff, cafeteria workers, school meal experts – to get their input. The IDEO folks asked me not to leak any of their ideas before the initiative is finalized later this summer; that’s an easy promise to keep, as my time with them was spent sharing my thoughts, not listening to theirs.

I wish I could say that my ideas are as cutting edge and innovative (or, as entrepreneurs like to say, “disruptive“) as IDEO’s are expected to be, but their ideas come out of a novel process they call “focused chaos“, whereas mine spring from the more humdrum “see a need and fix it.” Due to barriers posed by government meal program rules and lack of funds, many of my ideas have been getting stale waiting for someone to figure out how to implement them. I’ve written about most of them previously, sometimes repeatedly. Let’s revisit some of those ideas.

Longtime readers have often heard me say that school meal programs are woefully underfunded by the federal government, especially in high cost of living areas like SF. From my perspective, the single best way to improve the school meal experience would be to create a foundation to raise money specifically for school meal projects. Schools from New York to Boulder (CO) to Santa Barbara (CA) all benefit from foundations created to help support their meal programs. San Francisco’s school meal program badly needs this kind of sustainable outside funding to pay for improvements that the government meal payment doesn’t cover.

Although there are federal regulations around what food is served, and how it is served, some of the most obvious “fixes” only require money to pay for them. A simple example is round cafeteria tables to replace the current, less user-friendly rectangular tables. Many years ago, Mission High School was able to find money to purchase such tables, and when I toured the school cafeteria, then-Principal Kevin Truitt showed them off proudly. He explained that without the “desirable” end seats and “undesirable” middle seats of the previous rectangular configuration, the round tables, where all seats were equally desirable, had resolved one of the major areas of student conflict in his cafeteria.

Outside funding from a school meal focused foundation could pay not only for equipment but also for more nutrition education, to help counteract some of the billions of dollars the food and beverage industry spends annually marketing junk to children. It could pay for outreach to families to encourage more students to eat the tasty meals from Revolution Foods now being served in SFUSD cafeterias, and for a public relations campaign to help popularize school meals and reverse the years of stigma associated with eating in the cafeteria.

Trendy food trucks to dispense school meals right on the schoolyard, pop up one-day-only special menus created by local chefs, longer or additional lunch periods to allow a more leisurely experience – all ideas I have suggested previously – could be possible if there were funding to pay for them. So could Breakfast in the Classroom, another idea I have frequently explored, and one which comes with its own high costs. The Japanese school lunch model, which includes students serving each other a communal meal in elementary school, is intriguing (as I explained a few months ago), but adopting such a plan here would first require students to be prepared for it (as they are in Japan, by a kind of mandatory food education called “shokuiku“.) This cultural and nutritional education too would cost money.

Who could create a school food foundation? How about the high tech companies that have recently settled in San Francisco’s Mid-Market Street area? Some companies have received lucrative tax breaks to locate in that part of town, and there is some feeling that these companies should engage more with the community and act as good corporate citizens. The recent Sean Parker wedding fiasco did nothing to dispel the notion that young people awash in tech money live aloof from the concerns of everyday folks. What a huge win/win it would be for the more prosperous tech companies to fund a foundation to benefit the largest public feeding program in San Francisco (that’s the school meal program, in case you were unaware.)

Sara and Evan Williams (he of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium fame) have already made a generous start in funding the IDEO project. Imagine what could happen if they challenged their high tech brothers and sisters to step up and join them in making school mealtime more enjoyable for SFUSD’s predominantly low income kids.

Having a private foundation to help fund meal program improvements would give SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) the flexibility to move forward with projects without having to convince the Board of Education to dip even further into SFUSD’s general fund to pay the cost. While the BOE has been incredibly generous in funding the perennial SNS deficit, which in 2011-12 was $1.9 million and for 2013-14 is projected to be $2.6 million, there is a limit to how much general fund money can reasonably be transferred away from paying for teachers and textbooks.

Although all seven members of the SF Board of Education were invited to meet with IDEO staff and give input to the initiative, thus far only two – board president Rachel Norton and Commissioner Jill Wynns – have agreed to do so. IDEO staff ought to devote some time to pondering why they have gotten such a lukewarm response to their project from the very group to which the plan will ultimately be presented in the fall.

Maybe any project whose working title includes the word “reform” carries an unsavory implication that the current program, offering super delicious meals to all students at great expense to the SFUSD general fund, is unpleasant, unacceptable and, like a defiant teenager, in need of “reform”. A well-received study of Oakland’s school meal program was titled “Rethinking School Lunch”; “rethinking” may be a more appealing concept to school leaders than “reforming”, and one which does not carry the taint of Michelle Rhee-style “education reform“, which is not a popular concept in SF.

It could be that after sitting through a presentation just last summer of yet another outside group’s view on the same topic, and subsequently consigning that badly flawed document to the trash heap, the school board is wary of encouraging reports on “how to fix school meals” to become an annual event.

Or perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that, despite the attention that Superintendent Carranza has given to the importance of promoting healthy food and a healthy lifestyle, SFUSD still does not universally embrace those goals. Each school board member has their own issues of urgency, and “the school food experience” is just not on everyone’s must-improve list.

Whatever the reason, IDEO would do well to have a solid plan in place for how to move their final project forward with a school board that appears for the most part uninterested in it. I’m eager to hear their disruptive ideas to enhance the school meal experience; I just hope I am not the only one listening.

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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