A Healthier Future for SF Low-Income Students

by Lena Brook

Posted on Nov 04, 14 at 10:11 PM

Allow me to paint a picture about the SFUSD School Meals Program. Let’s begin with hunger. Rumbling tummies, distracted bodies, cranky spirits. Too many students wake up, scramble to get to school and inevitably skip breakfast. They arrive hungry, and we know they stay hungry during the day too: only 57% of those who qualify for free/reduced school meals actually eat lunch.

To the extent that they do eat during the school day, they tend toward junk food, off campus. They go off campus because the alternative is to spend their entire lunch period waiting for a free meal. Overburdened lunch lines are a huge issue.

In the background to all of this: about 1/3 of SFUSD students are overweight or obese; and just 10% of Latino and African American students meet fitness standards, according to Fitnessgram data. So these kids fall into the awful situation of being both stuffed and starved. Hungry and overweight.

This hunger makes it awfully hard to focus and learn, to make the most out of school. One of SFUSD’s main goals as an institution is to close the achievement gap for these most vulnerable students. Improving our school meals program – taking those kids from being hungry to sated – would go a long way toward helping make that goal a reality.

The good news is that the District agrees! In fact, SFUSD wants to radically transform its school meals programs. It has spent the past several years taking a magnifying glass to every aspect of its food and nutrition operations. They brought in a far improved vendor in January 2013, offering healthier and higher quality food. More recently, it developed a concrete vision that will radically transform the notion of school meals.

The vision offers concrete plans ranging from family style-meals for elementary school students to space renovation to more locally sourced and locally cooked meals. This isn’t just talk. Roosevelt Middle School unveiled a newly redesigned cafeteria on October 22nd. Willie L. Brown, Jr. Middle School, in August. Breakfast and supper programs are expanding. But these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

If implemented, these transformative ideas will mean that the District will serve three square meals a day, every day to those kids who now learn with rumbling bellies. Culture shift will happen. Implementing the recommendations embodied in this vision will mean that our school meals programs leap from the 20th to the 21st century.

All of this takes additional funding! These changes cannot happen with the Student Nutrition Department’s current resources, which already run in the red.

The passage of Prop E would be a gamechanger for San Francisco’s low-income youth. It is an unparalleled opportunity to create a healthier food environment for our community. Revenue from this tax is slated to directly support food and nutrition programs – among other things – at SFUSD. Revenue from this tax IS the direct link between SFUSD’s school food vision remaining just a vision OR becoming a reality. Revenues from the soda tax would not only go a long way toward revamping the school meal program, they could also support food education programs that lost their funding in recent years.

All of this investment in improving school food would profoundly touch the lives of tens of thousands of San Francisco youth, who deserve to live and go to school in a community where making the healthy food choice is the easy choice.

After all, even great schools and great teachers can’t teach hungry kids.


Lena Brook is mom to two SFUSD students, and a member of the SFUSD Food and Fitness Advisory Committee. A longtime advocate in the good food movement, she is a public-interest communications consultant with HavenBMedia in Oakland.