TLT Guest Blogger Dana Woldow: What It Really Takes to Fix School Food (Hint: More Than Six Cents)

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 30, 2010

[Ed. Note:  The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week (and possibly even today) on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Senate bill that reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act and which will, if passed, increase school food funding by 6 cents per meal.

The bill has met with opposition in Congress in part because it presents the terrible choice of increasing school food spending at the expense of SNAP, i.e., the federal food stamps program.  Much has been written about this “rob-parents-to-help-kids” scheme, including the compelling essay by Raj Patel that I posted last week, and today’s blog post by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, which proposes a soda tax to fund the bill.

But if, for better or worse, the bill passes as written and districts get the additional six cents, is that increase going to be sufficient to “fix” school food?  Will that additional money empower food service directors around the country to at last trade in their fried nuggets for brown rice and stir fries?

Shows like Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” and school districts like Chef Ann Cooper’s former district in Berkeley, CA and current district in Boulder, CO, are often held up as examples of what’s possible in school food reform, yet it’s seldom ever mentioned that in each of these cases, far more money is being spent on those meals than the current federal reimbursement rate — and far more than that rate plus six cents.  (See here for a critique of Jamie Oliver’s show on these grounds.)  Instead, the misperception persists that if only stubborn food service directors would start “scratch cooking” or demanding better food from suppliers, everyone’s district could look like Jamie Oliver’s or Chef Ann’s.

That this fallacy exists was amply demonstrated by my much-commented-upon debate with Jane Hersey two weeks ago, and I was particularly interested in the comments left by Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco.  Dana has intimate familiarity with what it takes to make significant changes in a large, urban district like my own, and she is less-than-starry-eyed about the ability of any other district to follow suit without outside funding — over and above the current USDA reimbursement rate, OR that amount plus six cents.  I asked Dana to guest post today on this topic, and she agreed.]

What It Really Takes to Fix School Food

by Dana Woldow

While I have heard some people claim that it is possible to “fix school food” using only the current government allotment of $2.72 per free lunch, I have never seen this happen. The districts which have been able to offer something better either have extra funding, as is the case in Berkeley, CA, or outside funding/fundraising, as is the case in Boulder, CO, the two districts with high profile school meal programs redesigned by Ann Cooper. Or, like my home district of San Francisco, the school meal program just runs an enormous deficit and the school district grudgingly covers the cost.

Where does that extra funding come from? Thanks to an obscure funding stream in California called Meals for Needy Pupils, Berkeley gets an additional $1.24 for every free and reduced price breakfast and lunch it serves, on top of the $2.72 from the feds. Without that extra money it is unlikely that Berkeley could continue its program, and that extra funding is not available to most other districts in California (nor, of course, anywhere outside of California), meaning the Berkeley program, laudable as it is, is not replicable in other school districts which lack that generous extra funding.

What’s more, the scratch cooking done in Berkeley is only possible because ten years ago the citizens of Berkeley taxed themselves via a bond to build their school district a fabulous central kitchen in which to cook. Hats off to Berkeley for doing that, but it is important to acknowledge that not every community can afford to tax themselves this way to help provide their schools with a place to do nutritious scratch cooking.

The price for a paid lunch, for the 60% of Berkeley students who don’t qualify for free/reduced, is the highest I have ever seen – $3.25 for elementary lunch, $3.75 for middle school, and $4.25 for high school. Again, not every community could afford to send their kids to school with this much lunch money each day, even for those kids lucky enough to come from families which don’t have to rely on free school lunch. In Boulder, the extra money to pay for kitchen upgrades and staff training to enable scratch cooking is coming from massive fundraising efforts by parents, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Again, hats off to the generous (and relatively wealthy, with just 18% of student qualified for government paid meals) citizens of Boulder for getting this done, but not every community could raise that kind of money, no matter how badly their school food needed to be “fixed.” It is worth mentioning that the new meal program in Boulder still needs at least 1,000 more students to eat school lunch every day before it will come close to breaking even.

After eight years of work to “fix school food”, I am convinced that while on paper it may be possible to draw up a budget to operate a school meal program, including all of the expenses – food, labor, overhead, kitchen facilities, equipment, staff training, office expenses, everything it takes to run a meal program – with nutritious scratch cooked lunches for $2.72 apiece, no district of any size is, in fact, doing it, despite the best efforts of many capable people like Ann Cooper. It depends on too many variables, most of which are not fully within the control of the person running the meal program – getting more paying kids to buy the school lunch, keeping volatile food costs under control (remember the spike of 2008? Our food costs here increased 40% in one year!), and weeding out unproductive labor (a near impossibility in a union town like San Francisco).

Moreover, an unexpected labor strike can devastate a program which previously had a balanced budget, as can an unexpected site visit from the USDA prior to a full review of the program; if they find serious flaws, they will withhold funding for the entire meal period on that day, costing a district thousands of dollars. Bad weather can bring a power outage and thousands of dollars of food can be lost. A food recall or E. coli outbreak in a community can cause a giant dip, even if short lived, in participation in a school meal program. All of these things and more have happened here, and elsewhere around the country, at one time or another; all of them wreak havoc on a budget which was “balanced” when committed to paper the previous spring, but which falls to pieces once real life intervenes during the school year.

The districts which have been able to offer something better either have extra funding, as is the case in Berkeley with their Meals for Needy Pupils revenue, or outside funding/fundraising, as is the case in Boulder.  I feel it is essential that we keep a spotlight on that extra money as part of the discussion, because too many people already believe the fallacy that school food can be fixed with the existing funding, when there is no proof of that at all. I hear from angry parents every month who want to know why we aren’t able to do here in San Francisco what they do in Berkeley; they read about school food and get the idea that Berkeley faces all the same challenges that everyone else does, so how come they are able to have grass fed beef and scratch cooked meals and we aren’t? These folks are furious that the “incompetents” in San Francisco  are not able to do what they believe was easily accomplished across the bay. Now they are hearing the same thing about Boulder. But neither of those places is doing what they are doing on the same funding that we have here!

That’s not to say that school food can’t be “fixed”, or that we should all just give up and go home. I’m just saying, we need to continue to emphasize that the small number of schools and districts which are providing significantly better food for their students are doing it with extra resources. As Congress moves forward with that proposed extra 6 cents for school meals, parents need to keep the conversation honest about what it will really take to “fix school food”, and 6 cents isn’t it.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed Bruske December 1, 2010 at 9:10 am

I’m suppose I should be flattered that someone with Dana Woldow’s long experience in school food activism would take the time to dissect the reporting I’ve been doing for the last year. The salient points, I believe, are these:

1) Any community that can save its own school food should by all means do it. Waiting for the federal government to come to the rescue is a fool’s game.

2) Just as troubling as the lack of more upfront funding for school meals is the decrepit state of the back of the house. Kate Adamick, for instance, has made a career out of advising school districts on how they can capture millions through a multitude of effeciencies. Before they pin their fate on a long list or reasons why it can’t be done, perhaps every school district–including San Francisco–should submit to such an evaluation.

3) Indeed, a large part of the success in Berkeley and in Boulder owes to throwing out the old system along with its old attitudes and replacing them with a highly intelligent professional food service operation. (Note: Boulder is only in the second year of a three-year plan to become solvent. So far this year, they are meeting their numbers.) It would not only be wrong but counterproductive to believe that changes like these would happen simply by adding more money to the federal contribution. Yet we seem to view the national school meals programs through this single lens.

You can view the three series of articles I’ve written examining school food in the District of Columbia, Berkeley and Boulder here:

http://www.theslowcook.com/blog/tales-from-a-dc-school-kitchen/

http://www.theslowcook.com/berkeley/

http://www.theslowcook.com/boulder/

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Dana Woldow December 1, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Ed, you and I differ on this issue. I have very mixed feelings about encouraging any community which can afford it to go ahead and raise all the money they need to fix school food in their own back yard, and I say this even as, here in SF, we prepare to have a study done on building the central kitchen of our dreams; to build that kitchen, we will have to tax ourselves via a bond. We get it that waiting for the feds to step in and do the right thing may mean never seeing it happen, but on the other hand, even if some communities can afford to pay for the study and pass the bond, I know for sure this is not true everywhere, and I worry about what happens to the poorer parts of America when the wealthier communities take a “I’ve got mine, now let everyone else go get theirs” attitude.

I read a long article in Newsweek a few days ago
http://www.newsweek.com/2010/11/22/what-food-says-about-class-in-america.html
which touches on this issue of how more and more, better food is only available to the wealthy, several times. Here’s one:
“Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, has spent his career showing that Americans’ food choices correlate to social class. He argues that the most nutritious diet—lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, and grains—is beyond the reach of the poorest Americans, and it is economic elitism for nutritionists to uphold it as an ideal without broadly addressing issues of affordability. Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.”

Cross out “low income families” and substitute “school nutrition directors” and you have a pretty cogent explanation of why we have so much crappy food in school cafeterias. It is not that all nutrition directors except Ann Cooper and her small circle are idiots (although a few are); it is not that they don’t know that better food would be better for the kids. It is that too many of them are operating in communities that don’t have the resources to tax themselves to make things better, and the $2.72 from the federal government is not enough to put a really first class meal on the table.

People are losing their homes, and their jobs, in record numbers; unemployment is high and more people than ever need food stamps to get by (Newsweek say 59% more families on food stamps in just the past 3 years.) Good for Boulder to be able to raise money to help their low income kids, but in Boulder those kids represent just 18% of public school children. What about school districts which have 80-90% of their kids on free lunch? It is not realistic to expect everyone to be able to fix their own school food program without massive infusions of money from the federal government.

So when we encourage communities (and that includes SF) to just get it done on their own, are we setting up more of this kind of dichotomy as described in the Newsweek article?
“But modern America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status; as the distance between rich and poor continues to grow, the freshest, most nutritious foods have become luxury goods that only some can afford.”

Fixing school food in every community – the relatively wealthy Boulder and Berkeley, as well as the outright destitute parts of the country devastated by the housing debacle and unemployment – requires all of us to work together as one to get the fedreal government to fund school meal programs in a way that provides fresh nutritious food for all students, not just those lucky enough to live where people can afford to take matters into their own hands and make a local fix. Every community which feels that having fixed their own situation, they no longer need to demand better from the feds, weakens the ability of low income communities to get the goverment assistance they need.

So while we will move forward here in SF with getting that central kitchen we need, I will never give up the fight to get more of our national budget devoted to the nutritioonal needs of low income children. If that means I am playing a “fool’s game”, then I am proud to be called a fool. God knows I have been called worse.

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bettina elias siegel December 2, 2010 at 8:16 am

Hey all — here’s my take on all this back-and-forth — maybe you’ll agree. http://bit.ly/fHXvZO – Bettina

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal December 1, 2010 at 9:45 am

Dana – I’m curious to hear what your district will do with the extra $.06. I’m also curious to hear what improvements have been made in San Francisco without prior outside funding. Assuming there is no outside funding available, what can a district feasibly do to improve school food. I would love to read a follow-up article of what CAN be done successfully without additional funding.

Ed – how would you advise a parent member of a district student health advisory council to recommend an evaluation of the “back of the house” in order to “capture millions through a multitude of efficiencies.” in other words, how does a parent like me convince the school board that money mishandling in the back of the house is a problem AND improvements there are worthy of consideration as a possible source of funding for better school food?

Bettina- THANK YOU for providing a forum for this dialog.

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bettina elias siegel December 1, 2010 at 9:56 am

Jenna: Thank you for thanking me — and what I mean by that is, I felt sort of lousy yesterday, in that lately I feel like I’ve become the Voice of School Food Reform Doom. I don’t want to be a naysayer. I don’t want to seem to be spurning a funding increase (should we get it) by whining that it’s insufficient. But I also feel, especially in light of the media coverage that well-funded districts (Boulder, et al) receive, that we need to figure out what is truly replicable elsewhere and what isn’t. (And Ed, please know that this is not a knock on your in-depth coverage of Chef Ann’s efforts, which I greatly appreciate. I’m just continually trying to put all of this information in perspective.)

On a related note, I want to remind everyone of a little-noticed news item I posted here back in August which described how the USDA’s increase in meal reimbursement this year was the lowest such increase in the last five years. Historically, the rates have increased annually by 2.5% to 4.1%. In the prior two years the rates have increased by at least 4.0% each year. However, for this coming school year the USDA has approved a 1.3% increase in the reimbursement rate. My district has told us that it understandably anticipated a much higher increase based on historical rates and planned and budgeted accordingly. My understanding (and anyone from HISD Food Services reading this who wishes to comment, please do) is that once you account for the “deficit” created by the lower increase, the additional six cents is going to be even less effective in terms of “fixing” school food.

Finally, I have a question for Ed that’s related to yours, Jenna, which is: can’t I assume that if I have a ruthlessly efficient food service management company like Aramark on board, someone like Kate Adamick isn’t going to find many money-saving inefficiencies in my district?

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Ed Bruske December 1, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Kate Adamick has not commented here. But she did send me an e-mail pertaining to this discussion. It reads:

“Wow. Thanks, Ed. People just don’t get that the existing system already has virtually all the money it needs. I would love to get my hands on the free and reduced numbers in the SF school system . . .”

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Dana Woldow December 1, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Kate or anyone else who is interested can see the free and reduced numbers for SF for 2009-10 right here
http://www.sfusdfood.org/pdfs/percentages2009-2010.pdf

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bettina elias siegel December 1, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Ed: Let her know that in Houston, the free/reduced numbers are well over 80%.

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Ed Bruske December 1, 2010 at 10:27 am

To Bettina fist: I’m still looking for the model that is replicable everywhere. I’m sure it doesn’t exist. Every school district is different, although I’m confident Kate Adamick would tell you it certainly is possible. I had been pointed toward Garfield, Co., where Kate Adamick played a role. But the distsrict recently got a new food services director and she did not feel ready to entertain me yet. That’s how I ended up in Boulder. Kate was strongly opposed to the 6-cent increase you’ve referenced on grounds that food companies would simply increase prices and gobble it up.

If you are referring to the recent 4-cent inflationary increase in the federal reimbursement, that raised the total for a remibursible lunch from $2.68 t0 to $2.72. The rate is subject to change every year according to the Consumer Price Index. If it was small this year, it’s because inflation has been so low.

Regarding Aramark, Kate Adamick would tell you first thing to do is get rid of them. They only take money off kids’ plates and send it to shareholders in the form of profits. Kate is all about making food from whole ingredients using the in-house staff, under a self-operated food service scheme.

Jenna, you could always present your superintendent and school board with individual bound coppies of my three series. You can contact Kate Adamick directly: ChefKate@nyc.rr.com

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Bonnie Christensen December 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

Making the change is expensive. You have to apply to every grant you can get your hands on and this takes time! The community has to be on board from the Superintendent to the families. Meals for Needy money is available to San Francisco, but the school district can elect to keep that money for other programs and not provide it to food service… BUSD elects to give that money to their food service department in support of healthy food. Prior to the changes in food at BUSD, the processed foods that were being served put the Nutrition Services Program in the red. We no longer take money from the General Fund.

What is interesting to me about the conversation that we are having here is that we are not hearing from/about professional chefs. There is a myth out there that anyone can cook, anyone can open a restaurant, anyone can reform school food. This is like saying anyone can be their own attorney and represent themselves in a case. You can of course, but it could end up costing you a great deal more money than if you hired a good attorney and you are not likely to win if it is a complicated case. Running a school district food service facility is definitely a complicated case. BUSD management team, including the accountant, has extensive training covering school food service, private restaurant food service, culinary school (food service budget management, food safety and sanitation, catering, etc.) You cannot compare cooking at home or in a small restaurant with cooking for a school district. Managing a food budget is not like managing any other kind of budget as food is highly perishable and the cash flow is unlike most other businesses. Ms. Waldo is correct when she talks about all the things that can come up and set your budget back. By having highly trained food service professionals who are trained to think quickly on their feet, you can avoid costly setbacks by regrouping and instituting emergency measures immediately. But you need highly trained food service professionals. The union personnel does create enormous challenges. Berkeley does extensive on going training and supervision. This is truly an enormous challenge. And note that food service employees earn less money than custodians. We want “good food” but we shrug off the skills and qualifications necessary to prepare “good food” and we expect to get it for nothing.

It is important to note that hiring a middle man is expensive. By eliminating the processor, the packaging, the storage, etc, we save a tremendous amount of money. By hiring a management company you are paying someone else what you could hire managers to do themselves, but you need to hire food service professionals with excellent credentials. Chefs are trained in finding new, better, less expensive products that suit their customers (Procurement). Chefs are trained to write their own recipes and develop them to appeal to their customers, and to be prepared using the equipment and staff available. Chefs are trained to adapt to the problems that come up like a sudden frost causing fresh ingredients to suddenly become unavailable. Chefs are trained to prepare and use up raw products with minimum waste, to handle foods safely for minimum loss of product, to create menus that are cost efficient, production efficient and appealing. People always ask me if we use a grid for our menus. We do sort of, but we don’t have a 5 day week every single week. The menu has to reflect our production capability! Do any of you know what I am talking about? Not really. The work of planning, recipe development, menu development, scheduling, purchasing, receiving, production, distribution, re-heating, service, accounting, training and supervision requires extensive training and skill. Without professionals with background in these areas districts face impossible challenges.

Your body is your vehicle for life. People put more money in their cars and the gasoline that goes into those replaceable cars than they do in their own bodies… Until they get sick. Our citizens need to become informed about the significant health effects of food on our bodies and how it connects to our longevity. We all need to make what we eat a priority. We have to choose to put food and our health above other interests. It is hardly a choice in my eyes but an urgency. Berkeley did make that choice when Berkeley elected to raise funds to support the school district and their Nutrition Services Program. The BUSD Administration recognized the urgency in supporting “scratch cooking” and put the Meals for Needy money into the Nutrition Services Program. All of us need to work together to promote healthy food in school and out. As a community we need to recognize and respect the skills necessary to prepare and serve healthy good food safely. We need to continue to convey the urgency to improve the way we eat today and every day. We need to look at what we can do today instead of what we cannot do. And we need to acknowledge that it will take getting people with conflicting interests to come together to achieve this goal. It is an enormous and daunting endeavor but that is because it matters so much. So get to work by doing what you can today.

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Dana Woldow December 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

For those who don’t already know it, Bonnie Christensen is the executive chef in the student nutrition program in Berkeley Unified. I’m pretty sure that she earns less running the kitchen in Berkeley than she did during her years cooking in top restauarnts, and that disturbs me too. Like the people that teach our children, those who are in charge of feeding them should be among the most revered and best compensated professionals in the country, yet most school food service workers, even those who manage their departments, are poorly paid, just as most teachers are.

Cooking real food for school children shouldn’t have to be like the Peace Corps, where one takes a vow of poverty because the spiritual benefits of helping the poor make up for the lack of financial compensation. To attract and retain top cooking talent like Bonnie, schools need to be able to offer nutrition department salaries that are competitive with the top restaurants, and that too takes more money. It’s not just about needing more than 6 cents to pay for better food; schools also need more than 6 cents to pay for top talent in the kitchen.

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Bonnie Christensen December 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I make a good 50% below what I would earn in the private sector as do my sous chefs. I am a resident of Berkeley and could not afford to live here on my wages alone. We depend on my husband’s wages to pay our bills. Not to mention I start work at 4:45 in the morning and leave between 2 and 3 pm every day.

There is no prestige associated with this job the way there is in working at a 3 or 4 star NYC restaurant (and I have), however the experience has been extraordinary and the mission- personal and deeply rewarding. Often, I have to remind myself of this. In the private sector chefs are admired and respected, in public schools we have no clout and are not necessarily regarded seriously. At a recent staff development day food service and all classified employees were referred to has “the support staff to the professionals”. I have never thought of myself as anything but a professional chef. I started cooking professionally at 13 years of age. I went to a prestigious New England liberal arts college, worked in NYC fine dining restaurants and went to CIA. We even had a principal approve drawings for a remodel that eliminated the kitchen facility there altogether. Food service is simply not on the radar. School districts are in the business of educating children and food has never before played a significant role in this endeavor. However, the word is getting out that without proper nutrition and decent healthy food in schools, the business of educating children is only going to get harder and more costly. KQED radio had a report on this evening noting tht 1 in 4 children live in households that CANNOT AFFORD TO PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE. The call is for schools to provide that food and to provide food that is healthier than what we generally see out there, and food that is appealing. Change is occurring however slowly, it starts with knowledge.

I do not do this for the money, I do this because child health and nutrition are first and foremost in my mind. And cooking and running a food service facility is what I have to offer to bringing about the changes that have to occur now. I am truly grateful to my community and the district for giving me this opportunity. Dana is right, however, not many people can afford to do this work at the wages the district offers. This is a battle for us. As I have mentioned before, custodians earn more than food service employees… makes you think.

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bettina elias siegel December 2, 2010 at 8:15 am

Bonnie: First, just want to thank you for taking the time to stop by The Lunch Tray and to leave your comments. It’s great to be able to hear from you directly about the challenges you face. Here’s my take on all the great back-and-forth we had yesterday and in recent weeks. http://bit.ly/fHXvZO – Bettina

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Dana Woldow December 1, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Yes yes yes! People, listen to Bonnie – she knows whereof she speaks!
The only tiny little point I would correct is that Meals for Needy Pupils money is NOT available to San Francisco, or to about 2/3 of the other school districts in California. Whether or not a district receives these funds is based on whether or not they had a particlar kind of property tax setup in one specific year in the 1970s; SF did have this setup in place early in the 1970s, but it had been eliminated prior to the crucial year, and with the passage of the infamous Prop 13 back at the end of the 1970s, it is now not possible for any other district to get in on the Meals for Needy Pupils funding.

Bonnie is right that there are districts which receive the MNP funding stream but do not spend it within their nutrition services department; legally they are allowed to divert that money to other uses. But that is not what is happening in SF; we do not qualify for the money at all.

To see which districts do qualify and how much they get, go here
http://tinyurl.com/34hn4hf
and use the drop down menu to choose “2009-10″ for “period”,
then, for “entity”, chose “school district”
then, for “program”, choose “meals for needy pupils”
then for “county” choose San Francisco (or Alameda if you want to ultimately find Berkeley’s funding)
finally you will choose the school district (for SF, choose SF Unified)
and that will bring you to the button called “preview report”; click and see the funding report for 2009-10
You will see that SF received $0 from Meals for Needy Pupils, while Berkeley is shown as receiving over $900,000.

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Dana Woldow December 1, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Jenna – sorry if I was not more clear. In SF, in lieu of outside funding, we have deficit spending, which I guess amounts to the same thing. That is, our meal program, with the whole grains, salad bars, fresh fruit daily including fruit (not juice) at breakfast, and all the other improvements we have made, costs more that the current revenue we bring in.

You can visit our website at http://www.sfusdfood.org to read more about what we have been able to accomplish, but I would NEVER say that this has been done without additional funding, because if your budget is not balanced and you are relying on a contribution from the school district’s general fund, then that IS additional funding even if it is not coming from the outside.

Our district has about 55,000 students, of whom over 23,000 eat school lunch daily. About 60% are qualified this year for free/reduced meals. Our nutrition services budget is somewhere in the $17 million ballpark.

SF also receives about $240,000 annually from the City to help underwrite the cost of the salad bars; this figure in no way covers the total cost, but it helps. The state of California is supposed to kick in about .21 for every free lunch served, but in reality the past few years we have not always been able to count on that money being available for the whole year. Sometimes they announce that the funding ran out by early spring, and sometimes they don’t announce this until the end of the fiscal year June 30th, meaning that all school year the money was built into the budget, only to find at the end that it is being withheld for the last 2 or 3 or 4 months of the school year, so it is a mixed blessing – great when we get it, but not something on which we can rely.

And of course that brings up the biggest problem, which is often unacknowledged, about relying on outside funding to pay for ongoing expenses (like better quality food, or staff training) – you never know when that funding might dry up. I think it makes more sense to spend outside funding for one time expenses, as we hope to do here in SF when we finally are able to get the bond to build a central kitchen. Here in SF, we are always aware that at any moment, the school distrcit could just decide to pull the plug on that deficit spending and we would lose all of our improvements. That’s why so much of my time is taken up in trying to publicize just how important it is for our lowest income and most vulnerable students to have access to the highest possible quality of food at school. Lucky for us, we have a left leaning school board who do support our efforts and who understand that this is an investment they make in our students which pays big dividends in terms of better focus in the classroom and improved educational outcomes.

I can post more about what I would recommend parents do if they want to start making changes in their own school district, if people are interested in reading that.

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Eric Weaver December 1, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I am one of the parents who helped start the transformation of the food service in Berkeley. On the question of funding, Berkeley has a long history of voluntarily taxing itself to support its schools. In the most recent election, a parcel tax to support maintenance of facilities passed with just over 80 precent of the vote. A bond authorization measure, the third since 1992, passed with more than 75 percent of the vote. By contrast, only one of the other 17 parcel tax measures around the state passed in the last election.

Berkeley was one of the first cities in California to complete the seismic upgrade of its schools after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2000, a bond issue was passed that specifically earmarked money for new kitchens.

The citizens of Berkeley have made a conscious choice to make education, including school nutrition, a priority and they have put their money where the mouth is. As the size of the yes votes indicate, education is a nearly universal priority in Berkeley.

I wholeheartedly agree that the level of state and federal funding for nutrition is a travesty. But local communities need to look at their own funding priorities as well. While Berkeley is a fairly affluent community, not everyone in Berkeley is affluent. But nearly everyone votes for school funding.

No change occurs until you make change a priority. The first thing parents need to do is organize and begin to press for change. Convince your town to make its schools a priority!

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Marni Posey December 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm

To all,

I am not going to even go into any of the reasons why or why not it cannot be done, as it just does not pertain to my feelings about school food reform.

You must believe it can be done, then open your minds, and start thinking outside of the box!

The goal for me is to continue my program and continue to provide healthy lunches to the students of BUSD, no matter what obstacles I may encounter.

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Jane Hersey December 3, 2010 at 10:05 am

My comments on Kelly’s radio show clearly touched some nerves. I believe that it isn’t hard to improve school foods. However, it might be hard to convince the people in charge of your school’s food to make these changes. These are two different issues.

When they speak about healthy school food, many people are describing the ideal, where fresh organic foods are prepared from scratch. I hope we will be able to do that some day, but for right now, any school system can improve their food by just focusing on getting rid of the worst ingredients.

Improving school food can be as simple as buying mac and cheese with the white cheddar, not the Yellow No. 5, or selling slushies that are colored with natural dyes. It can mean having chocolate chip cookies that contain real vanilla, not the fake “vanillin,” or selling potato chips that are not preserved with BHT. Switching from snack bags of Chee-tos to snack bags of Fritos might seem like a tiny step, but it means that the children will not be eating petroleum-based dyes and preservatives, as well as a dose of MSG.

This reflects the approach of the Feingold Diet — to get rid of the most offensive synthetic food additives, and observe to see if this leads to improved behavior and/or learning, and if it reduces health problems.

Our non-profit organization has been following this approach for 34 years and continue to do so for only one reason — it works for the majority of people who try it. It has also brought dramatic changes in behavior and learning in those schools that have implemented simple changes like these. (Please see http://www.School-Lunch.org.)

When the Greater New York City schools made modest improvments in their food (based on the Feingold Diet) they saw test scores climb dramatically. They also reduced the number of children who were 2 or more years behind academically. Their number dropped from 12.4% to 4.9%. This means fewer children needing expensive special services. Today it is typical for a child needing special services to cost a school system double the cost of educating a child in the mainstream — $20,000 a year instead of $10,000. Every child who can be moved from special ed would mean a saving of $10,000 per child per year. If ten percent of the children in a school district are receiving special services, the savings can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Schools can make the changes I have described above — removing the worst of the additives — without spending any more on their food. Once the cost of special services is reduced, it would be wonderful to be able to use some of these savings to buy really good quailty food, and perhaps to hire some newly-graduated chefs. They would earn far more working in a school than they do working in the kitchen at Applebees.

I’m sure that moving funds from one category to another will not be simple, and each school department will try to hold on to their funds like a dog with a pork chop, but I think it’s important to see the big picture, and in my view, this big picture would mean that schools will eventually be able to provide FREE healthy food for all children, as Dr. Poppendieck advocates.

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