Are These San Francisco School Kids Eating Better Than You?

A new food vendor emphasizes fresh ingredients (nothing frozen!) and whole grains.

Thanks to a new program at San Francisco Unified School District, students will be eating healthier meals. (Photo: Steve Debenport/Getty Images)

Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The Bay Area has a reputation for its slow-food attitudes and health-conscious residents. In Berkeley, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have helped bring the food movement into the mainstream, and San Francisco famously banned Happy Meals to thwart childhood obesity. It's no wonder then that the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has been working to bring healthier school lunches into the fold. On Monday, SFUSD students tasted the fruits of that effort when new school lunches hit cafeteria trays.

Oakland-based Revolution Foods is now handling lunch service at 114 schools in the district. The company, founded by UC Berkeley graduates, says it’s "on a mission to transform the way kids eat." Putting that philosophy into action has led SFUSD to make a major shift away from its previous approach to school lunches: serving reheated meals that were prepared, frozen, and shipped from the Midwest. That had been the status quo since 2003, when SFUSD established a relationship with Illinois-based Preferred Meal Systems. Last fall, the contract was up for renewal and Revolution Foods' bid won out.

Revolution is pushing back against many of the qualities that have come to define mass-produced meals. This is not the same highly processed, fatty, preservatives-heavy, high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened fare that have made school lunches such a scourge. In fact, the company prides itself on never freezing its meals, a feature that was attractive to SFUSD officials when they were considering a new lunch provider. A sample menu from the company's website reads like a cross between a Whole Foods salad bar and a typical school lunch. Kid-friendly staples like macaroni and cheese still make the cut, but in the hands of Revolution Foods, the cafeteria classic is served with a whole-wheat dinner roll, sunflower seeds, steamed carrots, and fruit. Other items, like the chicken chow mein with broccoli stir fry, will encourage kids to expand their palates. 

Lorraine Ritchie, who studies childhood nutrition and obesity at UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health (where she is Director of Research), tells TakePart that school lunch programs like SFUSD's can be instrumental in changing eating habits at home too. 

"Kids and families value what happens at school as a model for their own behaviors," she says. "So while I think that school meals are probably not going to, by themselves, solve the obesity problem, it's a critical and important step. It helps inform both the kids and the parents about what is healthy and what isn't healthy and what they can do differently." Furthermore, Ritchie adds, if schools want the lessons they teach about health to hit home, they need to set an example. "It's very difficult to teach children about nutrition if you're not modeling it. "

Ritchie's work on childhood obesity focuses on vulnerable populations who, she says, face hurdles to adopting healthy eating habits both because their families can't afford nutritious food and because it's not readily available. School lunch (and breakfast, ideally, says Ritchie) is one place where kids have consistent access to meals. 

For SFUSD, the new-and-improved offerings mean an increased cost of 16 cents per meal. The San Francisco Gate reports that the contract is 18 months long and will cost the district about $9 million per year. The cost for students will depend on how many participate in the program, but kids on subsidized lunches will still have access, and SFUSD is hoping that high participation will make meals affordable. According to a 2012 SF Weekly article, roughly 62 percent of local public-school students in the SFUSD system qualify for meal subsidies. 

While parents might breathe a sigh of relief that their kids will eat squash and soy nuts instead of tater tots and corn dogs, kids can be a tougher sell—just ask Los Angeles Unified School District, which switched to healthier fare a year ago and was met with student petitions, a drop in lunch participation, and a disheartening amount of waste.

But if healthy food prevails, the payoff may be worth the struggle. A school district in San Diego has credited its improved school meals with a boost in attendance, improved academic performance, and fewer incidences of illness among students. 

SFUSD Superintendent Richard A. Carranza's statements in a press release annoucing the program suggest the menu changes are indeed geared at improving both the quality of food and academic performance.

"Serving fresh healthy food every day that students will enjoy eating is a priority for us," he said. "It is hard for students to learn if they are undernourished. To strengthen academic performance we must promote good eating habits and provide access to high quality, nutrititious food that appeals to our diverse community of students. "

Ritchie backs Carranza's statement whole-heartedly, but says there is even more that can be done. "I think we have done a disservice [to kids]," she says. "I think [teaching nutrition] is as important as math, science, and English." As a parent, she's seen her kids routinely return home with sugary treats and snacks that are part of classroom celebrations or holiday parties. "That is really something that most school haven't addressed. Responsibility is a strong word, but schools certainly have an opportunity to guide kids toward better eating habits."

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