Dana Woldow is the co-chair of the SFUSD student nutrition and physical activity committee, and she has been a district parent for 18 years. She got in touch with me about starting a thread on SFUSD's nutrition services and school food. I immediately had lots of question and she responded with thoughtful answers. I'm posting our email conversation in the form of a Q&A below. Dana will be monitoring the comments section so feel free to ask more questions.
Q - What's your background?
A - I have been a parent in the SFUSD since 1991; I have three sons, the youngest of which will graduate this coming June; all three of my kids went through the SFUSD K-12. I first became involved with school food in 2002, when my second child was in middle school at Aptos MS; Aptos did a pilot program to get junk food out of the cafeteria and track the revenue. Based on the success of the Aptos pilot (more revenue generated selling healthy food than junk food), and in response to a school board resolution to get junk food out of all schools by the start of the 2003-04 school year, the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee was formed. I have been parent co-chair since autumn 2003. I do not work for the school district and all of the work I do for better school food is done as a volunteer. You can read more about the Aptos pilot, or the complete short history of school food in the SFUSD, at www.sfusdfood.org
Q - Why do we have to fill out that meal application form?
A - Student Nutrition Services (SNS), the district department responsible for providing school meals, is asking all families to fill out the meal application, even those who know they won’t qualify based on family income. SNS has annual expenses of about $16 million. Their main source of income is from federal and state reimbursements for breakfasts and lunches served to students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. Without a meal application on file, SNS cannot receive the full government reimbursement for those meals. Based on family size and income, as reported on the meal application, students are designated eligible for free or reduced price meals, or they are designated as being on “paid” status (meaning not reimbursable). The “paid” category includes not only students whose family income is too high to qualify for reimbursement, but also students whose families have not filled out a form at all. SNS receives just 25 cents from the government to offset the cost of “paid” lunches, while total reimbursement for a student qualified for free meals is $2.78. Students on “paid” status are expected to pay for their school meals. However, not all of them do so.
Please visit www.sfusdfood.org for more information on this, and a downloadable flyer your school can use to explain about the form to parents (available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.) Scroll down to the section called ‘Free and Reduced Price Meal Applications’.
Q - Can my child get a vegetarian lunch?
A - Yes. Different schools follow different procedures for ordering the vegetarian lunch, but in all cases, the lunch MUST be ordered in advance; it causes major headaches if students are allowed to take a vegetarian meal which they did not preorder (because the caf workers only order enough of them to cover the preorders.) If a child is allowed to select, for example, the cheese pizza at the last minute, it means that some other student coming through the line later, who did preorder the cheese pizza, will not be able to have it because the other child took it. At some schools, parents place preorders with the school secretary, but at all schools, the order can be placed directly with the cafeteria worker. Vegetarian lunches must be preordered no later than lunchtime of the day BEFORE the meal is wanted – so, order by lunchtime Monday to get the meal on Tuesday – because the cafeteria workers call in their orders for the following day right after the meal period is over. The meal can be, but does not have to be, prepaid; it is also fine if the student simply brings his money and pays for the meal on the day it is served. Some parents have a standing order for the vegetarian meal; if the caf worker is doing his/her job properly, there will always be enough meals for those students who have preordered them. The problem comes in when sometimes a caf worker allows kids who have NOT preordered the vegetarian meal to choose it at the last minute; that often results in other kids, who DID preorder, finding there is no meal for them. The best way to ensure that your child gets the vegetarian meal is to place your preorder directly with the cafeteria worker. If you preorder through a third party (like the school secretary, or whatever) you are running the risk that the message may not be delivered to the caf worker in time (that is, before the end of lunch the day before.)
Q - Where can I find a monthly cafeteria menu?
A - Most elementary schools send the monthly menu home at or just before the start of the month. You can find it online at http://portal.sfusd.edu/template/default.cfm?page=nutrition
Q - My child has food allergies or special medical needs - how can I get him a meal he can safely eat?
A – Contact the Principal at your school, who has a form to be filled out for students qualified for free and reduced price meals who also have special dietary needs. A note from your child’s medical authority (doctor, doctor’s assistant, or nurse practitioner) is also required.
Q - Can I send cupcakes and candy to school for my child's birthday?
A – Yes on cupcakes, no on candy. Cake or cupcakes may be served for birthday celebrations but fruit or vegetable muffins (banana, apple, zucchini, carrot, etc.) are recommended alternatives to cake. Candy, soda and chips should not be sent to school. Families are encouraged to feature primarily fresh fruits and vegetables for any classroom celebrations involving food during the school day. Other snacks can be chosen from the guide available at
or from the list available at
Acceptable beverages include water, milk, and 100% fruit juice (please see http://www.sfusdfood.org/pdfs/beverage.pdf for more suggestions).
Teachers are strongly urged to limit birthday parties to one per month for all students born in that month, with one cake for all to share.
Q - Why can't we have better food in the cafeterias? Are there any plans to introduce organic fruits and vegetables and milk?
A – The short answer is, lack of money. The federal reimbursement for a lunch served to a child qualified to receive free meals at most SF schools is $2.59; the state adds .19, for a total of $2.78. This must pay not only for the food, but also for labor and benefits, and all overhead costs, including delivery, utilities, pest control, garbage collection, etc. After all non food costs are covered, about $1 is left for food, and the meal must include 8 oz milk, 2 oz protein (usually meat), 3/8 cup vegetable, 3/8 cup fruit, and a serving of grain – all for $1. Organic products are vastly more expensive and are not affordable in most cases. For more information on this, please visit www.sfusdfood.org and scroll down to the section called “Want to help?” and click on the link “Why can’t we have better food in our schools?”
Q - Where does the food come from?
A - The meals served in all elementary schools, middle schools and high schools come from Preferred Meal Systems. This company specializes in providing nutritious frozen entrees, which are then completed by the addition of fresh breads, local fresh produce, and fresh milk. The hamburger and hot dog buns are fresh 100% whole wheat and come from Athens Baking Company in Fresno (CA); other whole grain breads served with the school meals come from Alpha Baking Co. in Chicago. Fresh produce comes from JC Produce in Sacramento (CA). The milk is from Berkeley Farms in Hayward (CA) and contains no bovine growth hormone (rBST.). The Preferred meals are delivered daily and heated to food safe temperatures for meal service at the schools. Other assorted food products necessary for the production of all a la carte sales items come from Sysco. The bread is Hi-Vibe Bread, carried only by Sysco; it is whole grain, comes frozen, and is baked fresh as needed at the cooking schools.
Q - Why aren't they scratch cooking in our cafeteria?
A. - Twenty years ago, there was scratch cooking done in nearly every school. Over time, the increasing costs of labor and equipment led to the closure of more and more of the kitchen areas of school cafeterias, and a reliance on food which could be prepared at one site and then shipped to another site, where it is reheated and served. Elementary schools have not done on-site cooking since 1988. Most elementary schools no longer even have a kitchen area, those rooms having long ago been taken over for other school needs, including class size reduction. The idea of returning to scratch cooking is very appealing to some parents, but it is not feasible. Even in the few schools which still retain a kitchen space, there is no budget for renovation or the purchase of new equipment. While parents sometimes think that volunteer efforts, combined with creative grant writing, might produce the ability to renovate a school kitchen, they fail to consider the added cost of staffing a cooking kitchen, estimated to be well over $100,000 per year for even the smallest schools, at current salary levels. Even with 100% of students eating the school meals, there would not be enough revenue generated to cover the cost of the food and the higher labor cost.
Q - Why is chocolate milk offered?
A - Both white and chocolate are offered; there are many kids students who will drink only chocolate, and Principals have observed that when only white is offered, the kids won't even take it, let alone drink it. Often, Principals complain when chocolate is not available, because they feel it is more important to get the milk into these kids than to worry about the relatively small amount of sugar in the milk.
Regarding the sugar, the SFUSD wellness policy sets 27 grams of sugar per 8 oz as the maximum allowable in flavored milk; the Berkeley Farms milk has 26 g. This is total grams of sugar, and includes the 15 g which occur naturally in an 8 oz serving of lowfat milk; in other words, of those 26 g, 11 are "added sugar" and 15 occur naturally and would be present in white milk. That 26 g is the same amount of sugar as in 8 oz of soda, but that doesn't mean that drinking 8 oz of chocolate milk is the same as drinking 8 oz of soda. The soda contains no nutrients except the calories from the sweetener. By contrast, an 8 oz serving of milk contains 30% of the recommended daily intake of calcium; 25% of vitamin D, 16% of protein, 11% of potassium, 10% of vitamin A, 18% of vitamin B12, 24% of riboflavin, 10% of niacin, and 23% of phosphorus – a lot of nutrition in exchange for 11 extra grams of sugar (which is less than one tablespoon.)
In a perfect world, every child would just drink the white milk and be happy with it, but some of the students come from homes where the main beverage served daily is soda, or "fruit punch" or Kool Aid. They are not used to white milk and won't drink it, period. Their families cannot afford to pay the increasingly high cost for a gallon of milk at home. In the absence of chocolate milk at school, these students get no milk in their diets at all.