School Lunches: Study Recommends a Joint S.F.-Oakland Kitchen

San Francisco public school students haven't eaten fresh-cooked cafeteria food since the Reagan era. In fact, many schools no longer have kitchens; some have no more than a closet-sized room where prepackaged meals are reheated. Sure, there are salad bars in about a quarter of schools, and health-savvy options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta in others, but most meals served by the San Francisco Unified School District — supplied by Preferred Meal Systems — consist of entrees like waffles, chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers.

Enter the San Francisco Food Bank. Last year, with the SFUSD's blessing, the food bank commissioned a $180,000 study of the district's student-nutrition program — a study mostly paid for by ConAgra and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The long-winded, labyrinthine results were delivered privately in December but have not yet been made public.

According to a memo obtained by SF Weekly and authored by Ed Wilkins, SFUSD's food-service director, the study makes a number of run-of-the-mill suggestions for reducing financial losses, spiffing up drab cafeterias, and serving breakfast in more elementary school classrooms. But it also contains a whopper: SFUSD and Oakland Unified School District should operate a central kitchen where meals for both districts could be cooked from scratch. Wilkins wrote that the Food Bank believes the joint commissary "may provide the best possible combination of flexibility, cultural sensitivity, coverage, and efficiency."

Many parents support a revival of from-scratch cooking, and some district leaders have long backed the idea of a central kitchen, or something like it. Board of Education member Jill Wynns tells SF Weekly that it might make a good item for future bond funding. But in his memo, Wilkins contests the recommendations — both for a joint kitchen with OUSD, and renovating the district's own kitchens. He added that the Oakland plan would need "analysis of logistics and political feasibility." Wynns calls it "a crazy idea" and criticizes the study's failure to fully analyze the potential costs. And Wilkins himself notes that SFUSD is already exploring the central-kitchen idea at an unnamed school site — and seeking funding to make it happen.

Funding is key, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture only reimburses California schools $2.94 per lunch for the lowest-income kids. SFUSD already loses $3 million a year from its $18.3 million food programs, and paying cooks San Francisco wages could nix the whole thing, according to Wynns. But there's a payoff: School meals offer "the biggest opportunity to provide critical daily nutrition to hungry and food-insecure children in San Francisco," says Teri Ollie, associate director of policy and advocacy for the food bank.

If there's one thing SFUSD and the food bank agree on, it's the value of being tight-lipped. SFUSD avoided letting us speak directly with Wilkins, and both agencies refused to tell us when the study will go before the school board — and whether it will need to go before Oakland's, too.

 
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