By Meyer Gorelick
Condensation pooled on the underside of the thin plastic wrap that stretched across the top of his school lunch while the five-year-old boy tantrums, desperate for the lunchable his father had told him he would bring by the school before lunch. When he is told the spaghetti and meatballs is his only option for lunch today, tears stream down his face while he sprints out of the cafeteria.
San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) board of directors initially voted in April to end its contract with Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based startup that has been supplying the City’s public schools with lunches since 2013. However, without a viable alternative, the board shifted course in May and renewed the one-year $11.5 million contract with Revolution to avoid being without a lunch provider come July.
As of now, serving pre-packaged lunches is a necessary evil that SFUSD is being forced to accept. The process of eliminating packaging and waste will take time, effort and a significant initial investment.
Installing a central kitchen and preparing school lunches from scratch requires the school board, administration and community to be on board, according to Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Director of Nutrition Services Bonnie Christensen.
Cafeterias in BUSD serve about 2,000 lunches daily that are prepared from scratch in a central kitchen. Its lunch program has been in place for 14 years.
Being able to eliminate the middle-man and produce meals in house saves BUSD money that they are then able to invest in staff and supplies.
“That money can go into the quality of our ingredients,” Christensen said. “Our meals are not cheap, but we are able to do it because we make it ourselves.”
Having control over the ingredients helps reduce waste. Food that won’t be cooked the day of can be frozen or stored for future use.
SFUSD isn’t yet capable of moving to making all of the 12,000 lunches they serve daily from scratch, hence the $11.5 million contract with a vendor that members of the school board have publicly criticized. But they are taking steps in that direction.
In October, the McAteer Culinary Center opened at the McAteer campus and is serving about 2,800 students enrolled in early education programs as well as students at McAteer High School and Ruth Asawa School of The Arts, reported The San Francisco Examiner.
The center will provide food prepared from scratch, and is meant to serve as a model for a central kitchen that the district hopes to build.
“The quality is different (from Revolution) because we are preparing them the same day and serving them the same day, and we’re also not wrapping them in plastic,” SFUSD Executive Director of Nutrition Services Jennifer LeBarre said.
There are a lot of obstacles to transitioning to a system where all of the meals are prepared from scratch. It is a slow and expensive process that requires the district to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
“It took us a long time to get here and unfortunately it’s going to take us a long time to change the system to get us back to where we need to go,” LeBarre said.
The McAteer kitchen is the fruit of a bond measure that passed all the way back in 2016. In order to get sufficient funding to renovate the rest of the schools in the district, bonds have to be placed on ballots during presidential or midterm elections when there is a higher voter turnout.
On top of renovating kitchens, in order to be able to serve bulk meals without packaging, cafeterias need to be updated with serving lines rather than tables where students pick up pre-packaged meals. Right now only two schools in the district, Ruth Asawa School of The Arts and Lafayette Elementary School, are equipped with appropriate serving wells. These were installed with funds from the 2016 bond that led to the McAteer Culinary Center.
“Until we can update facilities to remove the package, we’re going to continue having problems with the type of service we’re providing to our students,” LeBarre says.
“It’s an urgent issue. We have students in school now that we need to address their experience and their lack of access to healthy food,” she adds.
Sustainability is another reason Lebarre feels the need to install a central kitchen and update facilities as soon as possible. SFUSD committed in 2016 to the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) that encourages large institutions to direct their buying power toward five core values: local economies; environmental sustainability; valued workforce; animal welfare; and nutrition.
The Refresh program, which has been implemented in 20 middle and high schools in the district, is a concept that LeBarre calls “speed scratch” where pre-cooked burgers, chicken wings and other meals are brought in, prepared and served. Although this program is more popular among students, without the ability to bring in raw protein and cook it on site it is hard to support local farmers and adhere to GFPP practices.
Relying on programs like Revolution and Refresh also increases costs, since the district has to pay for someone else to cook and/or prepare the food, and then pay for their own employees to reheat and serve the food.
The initial investment will be large, but it will save the district money in the long run, and more importantly, give the students what they need.
Christensen recalls serving hot oatmeal to a high school student who came up and showered her with thank yous. Moments like these show her the power and importance of her mission to provide quality hot meals prepared from scratch for bodies and minds that rely on them.
“I know that he was hungry and he really needed that hot meal today and it made a difference,” she said.