Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SFGate: S.F. schools' lunch money cut off; rules broken

An excerpt from a story on SFGate:

School lunches have long been the butt of bad jokes featuring mystery meat and plastic-wrapped bean burritos, but in San Francisco, feeding more than 30,000 children every day - while following strict federal rules - is no laughing matter.

Since April, the school district has had to pony up the $1.5 million monthly cost of the lunch program for low-income students after state inspectors on a surprise visit found violations they deemed so serious and recurring that they cut off the flow of federal reimbursements.


  1. That shattering sound? Is my heart breaking. Think of what the district could buy with that $1.1 million. Cutting off funds for removing chocolate milk and punching buttons for kids seems truly evil. But if you really want to see the depths of human depravity, check out the comments on SFgate. Surprisingly, no one has yet suggested simply eating the poor.

  2. Is it more complicated? Apart from the "violations" you mention, did SFUSD simply not follow correct procedures and paperwork, and the result is this penalty? If the employees in charge of paperwork messed up, they should be fired.

  3. I'm a longtime parent volunteer member of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.

    The issues are not with paperwork or the Student Nutrition department but with what's happening at school sites, in the cafeterias.

    The main problems are that teachers, other school staff and sometimes parent volunteers break these rules right and left, assuming (if they're aware of the rules at all) that the rules only apply to caf staff. It's not that the caf staff are perfect, but they're pretty thoroughly trained.

    Student Nutrition sends information every year to principals emphasizing all these rules, including the penalties. In the past, the principals would claim they never got the information, so now Student Nutrition requires principals to sign a statement that they received and read the materials.
    It's clear from questions that come in that many never even glance, though.

    With luck, the Chronicle story will get the points across to everyone. I'm helping Student Nutrition write some clearer information pieces about these rules to post, too.

  4. ""They want to make sure they were doing their due diligence to protect the public funds," said Nancy Waymack, the school district's director of policy and operations for the inspections.

    SFUSD does a horrible job of protecting public funds, the food department probably does the BEST job, and at least food goes to the children, not to administrators' catering and "business lunches".

  5. i volunteer in my child's cafeteria (she a kindergartener) and many of the K kids simply can not manage the tray and/or are not interested in taking 3 items. my child, for example, does not drink milk so I send her water in a sigg cup. Yet, she is reqired to take and throw away perfectly good milk. Also, because these kids have to do it all themselves, the line takes a LONG time and the kids at the end of the line, literally have about 7 minutes to eat....

  6. You're right, 7:43! But tell it to the USDA, which makes the rules.

    By the way, my comments are as an individual, not on behalf of the committee.

  7. I don't know. Is it that hard to follow the rules? I mean you have to draw the line somewhere. The district will be getting BACK that 1.1 Million right? Once they show they are following the rules?

  8. Some of the USDA rules sound very unrealistic.

    For instance, some children are lactose intolerate, so may not want to drink milk.

    Also, why the fatwa against chocolate milk. How about chocolate soy milk? That is what I put in my kid's lunch every day.
    How about water?

    Also, forcing kids to take three items is silly. Maybe the kids just aren't hungry. In my experience, a child who is five or older does generally realize when they are hungry. Maybe the cafeteria environment is too chaotic for the kids to feel hungry.

    It should be mandated that kids get at least 15 minutes to eat, or get up and go and play, as they choose.

  9. Lest we not forget Board President Kim-Shree Maufas and her complete disregard of the rules. Looks like SFUSD got its hand caught in the cookie jar. I refuse to believe that SF Gate reported accurately on all the rules broken (or not).

  10. So . . .

    What is the deal with Kim-Shree Maufas?

    I read about the credit card thing. Frankly, she did pay it back, so it didn't seem that egregious. Still, I think the author of the article was trying to point to something else.

    Now the lunch program getting called by the Student Nutrition. It is somehow connected to something Kim-Shree Maufas is doing.

    I'm not a public school insider, so this is all very mysterious to me.

    Where might we look to find out more about Board President Kim-Shree Maufas?

  11. It seems to me that the person (in this case the federal government) that pays 90% of the cost here is allowed to make the rules. The rules might not make sense but if you knew the rules then you should have followed them. Besides, given the size of this program, there has to be rules somewhere. I'm more annoyed the SFUSD couldn't get it right.

  12. As an SFUSD Kindergarten teacher I will tell you that in my experience it's almost impossible to get all the school lunch kids to take three items reliably. There has to be someone standing there everyday dedicated to telling them "you need to take three things, you need to pick one more thing" meanwhile dozens of kids are waiting behind the one who can't choose the pear or the carrots, and I've got a table filling up with kids who need their thermoses, applesauce, and string cheese opened, kids who haven't mastered sticking a straw in a juice box, and the school lunch kids who need the plastic peeled off their entrees, straws stuck in milk boxes, catsup and ranch dressing opened, etc.

    It's not trivial. Lunchtime at my school quite honestly makes me crazy, and I know that we are not in compliance with the feds, even now. This article was the first I had heard about SFUSD's lunch troubles, although you'd think that they'd take the time to notify the teaching staff so we could do our part to correct the situation. Somehow they forgot to tell us. Oops.

  13. The rules do sound inane, but of course like most rules they were created to address a certain set of issues. The 3 items, probably to ensure some variety? The milk is probably a nutritional requirement. I have no idea where the 'student must take the food themselves' and 'student must touch the computer' came from, possibly to counteract the idea of teachers/staff swiping in a bunch of kids who aren't there?

    And of course, these rules are written to address a federal food program, not to address the needs of an urban district with in some cases extremely high need. (Or if they were written for areas like ours, they are obviously outdated.)

    The question in my mind is, is anyone at the state or federal level even considering whether all of the requirements should still apply?

  14. These are federal rules, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    Congress is currently in the process of reauthorizing the National School Lunch Program, and "listening sessions" have been held around the country. I and many others spoke at one of them here some time ago (1.5 years?), urging Congress to increase funding and cut out the impossibly picayune regulations. For information on how to weigh in, please go to www.sfusdfood.org -- that's the volunteer-maintained website of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.

    Regarding explaining to the teachers -- SFUSD Student Nutrition Services (SNS)provides materials to all principals every year explaining all this -- the principals supervise the teachers, and of course should be passing the information on. Every year it's clear that the principals never look at the info from SNS, which SNS has tried to remedy by requiring that the materials be delivered directly into the principals' hands (not to the secretary; no "I never got them") and that the principals sign a statement affirming that they read the materials.

    I'm not 100% convinced of the efficacy of the written communications, however. I'm planning to work on a volunteer project for SNS (in case I didn't say this already), writing up an explanation as clearly as possible of the most common violations in a format that can be posted on cafeteria walls -- perhaps two items, a short poster version and a longer memo version. It seems like if even one person in the school read them, they'd be likely to react (as in "holy shit!") by telling others. I'm just awaiting the raw info from SNS to work on this.

  15. ...With luck, the Chronicle article will help create a culture of awareness of these issues in SFUSD schools. The assistant superintendents called SOISes* oversee principals, and if the hierarchy made this something of a priority rather than allowing it to be ignored and disdained, things might change.

    A new parent in an up-and-coming school just told me this: The class was going on a field trip, and the parent checked in with the parent volunteer chair of the Student Nutrition & Physical Activity Committee to find out if the caf can make bag lunches for the qualified free-lunch students. The answer is yes, that's what's SUPPOSED to be arranged. Obvious benefits: The kids eat. The feds reimburse the lunches. Lunches aren't awaiting them at school caf and being wasted -- and with no federal reimbursements. But when the parent conveyed this to the teacher, the teacher reacted with disdain.

    By contrast -- I helped out a friend who's a teacher in a low-income Daly City school by accompanying her class on a field trip. I thought to ask if she had arranged bag lunches from the caf for her qualified students, and she said definitely; that's a given in her school. She doesn't even think the principal is such a great manager in other ways, but he was totally on top of that. It's just basic management competence.

    SFUSD can change this culture. It would be helpful if parents put on pressure and encouragement. Writing to Nancy Pelosi and/or advocating as suggested on www.sfusdfood.org regarding the picayune regulations would be very useful too.

    *School Operations and Instructional Services, I think -- something like that.

  16. Sorry, error in my comment -- what Congress is reauthorizing is the Child Nutrition Act, which governs the National School Lunch Program.

  17. The requests for bag lunches for field trips have to be made 2 weeks in advance. The teacher downloads a form, fills it out with the basic trip info (date, class, contact info) and has to list the names of every student who is going to eat a bag lunch on the field trip, then email it back to SNS. It's difficult to know who is going to need a lunch two weeks in advance. Often, even kids who eat school lunch every day will bring their own lunch for a field trip. I order for them anyway because I'd rather have to throw a few away then have someone go hungry.

    The official rules require each child to somehow go through the cafeteria line and get their own bag lunch on the day of the field trip, handing their card to the lunch lady, and the teacher is supposed to check off the names of each child on a copy of the form that was sent to SNS, then sign it. I've never seen that happen, it's difficult enough to get a class through the bathrooms and out the door without forcing them through the caf at a time that it's not even usually open to students.

    Also, the school caf doesn't make the bag lunches, they come from SNS just like everything else.

  18. If a teacher doesn't want bag lunches for the kids in the class who would usually eat the cafeteria lunch, he or she is not required to order them, just to let the cafeteria know two wweeks in advance that those kids who normally eat in the cafeteria will be off campus on that particular day. Surely the teacher always knows at least 2 weeks in advance when the field trips will be?

    So if the cafeteria knows not to order a lunch for the kids on the trip, then that food doesn't have to be wasted (and paid for by SNS.) The wasted food (and money to pay for it) that results when teachers don't follow this procedure negatively impacts everyone.

  19. I just went on a field trip with my kids' schools complement of three second grade classes. The teachers uniformly had never heard of the bag lunch option. Does someone know where this on-line form is for the teachers to find? The three teachers I talked to had no idea where they'd find it.

  20. Yes, the bag lunch option exists. The bag lunches seem WORSE (stale ham sandwich) to me (sfusd teacher) than the cafeteria lunch. When we go on a field trip, I tell the cafeteria in advance that we won't need any lunches at all for that day; that way, no one gets charged. Even the free lunch families can handle making a sack lunch as long as it's just once in awhile. The kids enjoy the change of pace.

  21. Not all students who eat caf lunches will bring their own lunch on field trip days, and you can't tell them that they have to. What's worse, to waste a couple stale mystery "lunchmeat" sandwiches and bags of baby carrots, or to let some kids go hungry? It may be your opinion that it is not a burden to ask free lunch kids to bring their own lunch for a field trip, but in my experience there will be some that can't or won't do it.

    Here's the link:

  22. As a volunteer who helped advocate for SFUSD salad bars, I visited some schools to check them out when they arrived, and was distressed to see one elementary school principal disparaging his school's hard-won salad bar (to me) and certainly not encouraging the kids to patronize it, if not actively discouraging them. (I think that salad bar has since been removed to a school that wanted one.)

    I certainly am not into glossing over troubling truths, but on the other hand, it would be a problem if parents disparaging the food discouraged hungry kids from eating the bag lunches (if principals had it together to direct their teachers to order them, and how -- a management lapse, if not!). So I just wanted to make that point.

    I haven't had an SFUSD bag lunch myself. The Student Nutrition director tells me that a typical sandwich is the turkey ham (they don't use pork) on kaiser rolls that they served on one recent day -- which sounds edible to me. 11:34 and 9:20, have you tried them and are they really so bad that it's better for kids who already may not get enough to eat at home to go hungry?

  23. 9:20 here, Caroline I think you misunderstand my point. Yes, the bag lunches are awful. I don't eat meat so I haven't tasted one myself, but I've seen them, and the faces of the kids eating them. However, when the choice is between a stale, plasticine lunchmeat sandwich and letting kids go hungry I'll pick the stale sandwich every time. I always order enough bag lunches for my free lunch kids who regularly eat school lunch because I know some of them won't bring a bag lunch from home.

  24. I have been on many school field trips with my kids' classes and the most common bag lunch sent from home that I see is a "Lunchables", which comes packaged with a small candy bar or cookies, and some kind of disgusting foil drink package which I am sure is nothing but HFCS, water, and chemicals. How is that superior to a sandwich, baby carrots, and an apple, which is what is typically in the cafeteria bag lunch?

    Not to say that the school food is perfect, but really, if you haven't tasted the sandwich, how do you know it is "stale"? I am sure the students you observe would have happier expressions on their faces if they were biting into a giant donut, or a Big Mac - would that make it a better choice for their lunch?

  25. 9:30, I can't say I enjoy your tone in the least, and considering you've never even laid eyes on an SFUSD bag lunch I have to wonder why you're so defensive about it. Have you ever felt a hard, dry roll? If so, are you saying you'd have to put it in your mouth to be convinced it was stale? That's unfortunate if true.

    The kids who eat bag lunches on field trips are the same kids who happily eat caf lunches everyday at school and yes, smile about their grilled cheese sandwiches, penne pasta, bean burritos, swedish meatballs, etc. Nonetheless, I'll repeat again for the comprehension-impaired that I'd much rather see the kids eating a school-supplied bag lunch than nothing at all. Is it better than a lunchables? I don't know, but even a lunchables is better than nothing.

  26. Why not enlist the able and interested families in a "bag share" on field trip days? Pack an extra sandwich or chips or juice. Come to think of it, even without packing extra, could anyone possibly go hungry given what kids usually throw away uneaten anyway?

  27. Yes, 6:53, that's exactly what we do. Kids are always happy to share. This is very much preferable to the perennial turkey ham sandwich and its slimy baby carrot companions.

  28. So you'd rather that low-income kids who can't afford to bring a lunch just beg for handouts from others than have a bag lunch that you claim (without having tried it) is too unpalatable for words?

    Wouldn't it be viewed as a little demeaning for them to have to beg?

    I HOPE this isn't a teacher saying that.

  29. USDA regulations require that student qualified for free or reduced price meals have those meals made available to them every school day, regardless of whether the class is going on a field trip, or school is closing early, or there is a schoolwide pizza party happening. Teachers or other school staff are not allowed to decide that on a given day, students will not be able to receive their free meal if they choose it. Just offering them the option to attend a school pizza party, or the option of asking for a bag lunch packed by someone else's mom, is not a substitute for making a regular caf lunch available.

  30. Um, well THIS teacher agrees that the "bag share" plan sounds like asking the school lunch kids to beg food off of others, and I can't imagine a sensitive way to implement it.

    I may find the bag lunches particularly unappealing, but I put that opinion aside and order enough for all the school lunch regulars when we go on a field trip - not just the ones who get their lunches free, but ALL of the kids who usually eat school lunch. As 8:32 points out, it's part of my job.