Speak Up for Better School Food

by Dana Woldow

The Child Nutrition Act, which sets the amount of money schools receive to pay for cafeteria breakfasts and lunches, is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2009. If you are one of the many people who think that "school food sucks", now is your chance to tell the people who hold the purse strings of school meal programs nationwide - our federal legislators.

The quality of food served in San Francisco Unified School District cafeterias has steadily improved over the last 5 years, from the elimination of junk food in 2003 to the opening of salad bars in every middle and high school this year. Gone are corn dogs, tater tots, and "fruit" pastries. A typical lunch now is a grilled chicken breast sandwich, or such ethnic favorites as beef soft tacos or teriyaki chicken with fried rice. Fresh fruit has replaced commodity apple turnovers or fruit cocktail in heavy syrup.

Anyone who buys food regularly is aware that skyrocketing gas prices, combined with weather-related crop failures worldwide, and the diversion of much of our corn crop into biofuels, have all led to steep food price increases. The money schools receive from the federal government for free meals for students has always been barely enough to cover costs, which forces the program to rely on surplus commodities. With the latest round of price increases, the government allotment is just not enough for the program to break even.

Students, parents, and school staff frequently ask for more organic food, a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly cooked meals, biodegradable eating utensils, and more. All terrific ideas - and all too expensive. After labor and overhead costs, only about $1 of the money the government provides for a free lunch remains to pay for the food. To serve better quality meals, SFUSD's Student Nutrition Services department (SNS) already spends more per lunch than it receives, so SNS ran a deficit of over $2 million in 2008-09. The SNS deficit will have to be made up out of the district's General Fund, leaving less money for teachers, books, and other classroom expenses.

Better nourished students are better able to learn, but school districts shouldn't have to choose between subsidizing student nutrition and paying for students' other academic needs. For years, school food advocates have moaned about the lack of money, about how government reimbursement goes up by pennies each year, while expenses for the meal program increase by dollars. Finally, there is a chance to complain to those who can do something to change the situation. Funding for school meals is covered by the federal Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress in autumn 2009.

Congress allocates the money for the school meal programs, and they need to hear two things. First, the school meal funding level for high cost of living areas like San Francisco needs to be increased. At present, the federal government provides $2.68 per free lunch served in all of the 48 contiguous states, but Alaska and Hawaii get more - schools in Hawaii get $3.15, while those in Alaska get a whopping $4.35. This is because of the higher cost of bringing food and supplies into these two remote states, but costs are higher than average here in San Francisco too. In summer of 2008, gasoline prices in 38 states averaged below $4 per gallon, while California averaged $4.24 (only 3 states were higher - Connecticut at $4.25 and yes, Alaska and Hawaii.) The federal government is aware that the cost of living is higher here, and they pay federal employees here a differential to make up for their higher living expenses. If SFUSD received $4.35 per free lunch served, as schools in Alaska do, there would be no SNS deficit, over $2 million would be returned to the classrooms to provide for students' academic needs, and there would be even better food served in the lunch program too.

The second thing Congress needs to hear is that the income ceiling for eligibility for free meals needs to be raised in high cost of living areas like SF. Presently, a family of 4 with two adults each working 40 hours per week at minimum wage jobs, barely qualifies for reduced price meals for their children. The cutoff for eligibility for this family in 2009-10 is $40,793, and their 40 hour work weeks at SF's minimum wage of $9.79 an hour earn them $40,726; if the family is able to supplement their income with just $70 more over the course of the year, they will lose their eligibility. Impossible to imagine parents raising two kids without assistance on under $41,000 a year in SF, where the rent on even a one bedroom apartment (for 4 people!) would cost about half of their annual income, but the children of this imaginary family would not qualify for subsidized school meals. According to The Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the self sufficiency standard (amount of income necessary to live without government assistance) for this family of four in SF is about $52,500. This is probably why so many students come to school each day ineligible for free lunch, but with no money to pay for their meal. SNS feeds these students anyway, but can collect only about 25 cents of government money for the meal. Raising the limit on how much a family can earn and still qualify for free lunch to a more realistic level here in SF, like $50,000 instead of $40,793, could enable thousands of low income children to qualify, and bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional government funds to help pay for higher quality food.

In creating the National School Lunch Program over 60 years ago, the federal government recognized its responsibility to ensure that a nutritious hot lunch would be available to every school aged child. It's asking too much to expect schools to fashion tasty and appealing meals out of government surplus commodities. The government must spend enough on school meal programs to provide high quality fresh food, grown and prepared close to home, to allow our children to thrive and achieve.

Let Congress know how you feel about these issues, and why we need both a higher reimbursement rate for free meals and a higher income eligibility ceiling to qualify for free meals.

Click here for a sample letter you can copy and send.

Click here for a one pager explaining the most important points to make about the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization.

Here's where to submit comments:

Follow the online instructions for submitting comments electronically. Need more information on why SF needs a higher income ceiling for eligibility for free and reduced price meals, as well as a higher reimbursement rate?
Click here to see "The Self Sufficiency Standard for San Francisco 2008". How much income does a family need to get by without government subsidies?

Click here to see how much the federal government reimburses school districts for free and reduced price meals.

Click here to see the income eligibility ceilings for free and reduced price meals

Click here to compare the cost of living in San Francisco with other cities around the country.

Click here to read news articles about how rising food and fuel prices are impacting school meal programs.

What is the Child Nutrition Act?
Click here to read the text of the Child Nutrition Act.

Click here to return to the home page.

Page last updated Tuesday June 21, 2011