GREEN CITY Not long ago a green vegetable was a rare and startling sight on a lunch tray at a San Francisco school. Carnival-style food was the standard, with corn dogs as a regular entrée, packaged apple turnovers as the "fruit" course, and fried potatoes as the staple vegetable.
School lunches have come a long way since 2003, when San Francisco Unified School District parent volunteers, staff, students, public health professionals, and other community supporters joined together to begin creating the school district’s Wellness Policy. Lunches are fresher, tastier, healthier, and leaner, and the SFUSD’s "no empty calories" policy has been a role model in the nationwide effort to improve school food.
But even after all of those changes, a high school group recently surveyed more than 2,000 of their peers and learned that students still complain that school food doesn’t taste fresh and costs too much, and some question how nutritious it is.
So a growing movement argues it’s time to take the next step: the greening of school meals. Surely a food-savvy, health-conscious, environmentally aware city like San Francisco, which is located in one of the world’s most fertile agricultural regions, should be feeding its kids fresh, local organic produce at every meal.
But there’s an obstacle, and it’s green too. Government reimbursement for a free school lunch is just $2.71, nearly half of which goes to pay for labor. Other fixed overhead eats up another large chunk, leaving just about $1 to pay for the meal itself, including 34¢ for the required milk.
No wonder it’s hard to respond to requests for fresher, healthier food and more of it. New salad bars placed in three schools as part of a pilot program address these concerns, offering students mixed greens and raw vegetables, several kinds of fresh fruit, and whole grain breads and muffins, in addition to the hot entrée. When the first salad bar was created last year at Balboa High School, the average number of students eating its cafeteria lunch every day increased 26 percent, with virtually all of the new diners low-income students.
But that $1 per meal won’t cover a salad bar at every school, which is the SFUSD’s goal. The cost of just the equipment for a salad bar the bar itself, added refrigeration and sinks, a couple more tables can run more than $10,000 per school, depending on how much work needs to be done to reconfigure the lunch line. Organic produce drives the meal cost higher too.
Unfortunately, the SFUSD doesn’t have that money. Because it’s currently left to the school district to provide meals, the SFUSD must require that the Student Nutrition Department budget break even or else cut into classroom funds to cover the deficit.
The good news is that thanks to grants from the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and Mayor Gavin Newsom, salad bars are being started in 25 SFUSD schools this year, stocked with seasonal, local produce. Still, despite this additional funding, only about 25 percent of district students will have access to the salad bars. Social justice demands that every student have equal access to a healthier school meal.
Most city officials and the greater community probably aren’t even aware of the situation. It’s time to put the need to feed our children adequately on the radar of the whole community and ask officials to step in with funding to ensure that our children can eat well without sacrificing classroom resources to cover the cost of their food. The Public Education Enrichment Fund, better known as Proposition H, provides a growing pot of city money aimed at improving the schools, and part of it could be used to fund the opening of more salad bars, so more school kids can enjoy the benefits of fresh produce and whole grains.
Providing the money to put salad bars in every school would pay off in healthier kids and related positive effects. Better nutrition is linked with higher academic achievement, improved behavior, and other benefits.
Let’s become a city that commits to teaching our children well, feeding them well, and promoting a greener food system. *
Paula Jones and Caroline Grannan are members of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.
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