School Lunch Menu is About More Than Taste, Price

by Anna Lappé 

When asked to picture a typical school lunch, most of us think of sad-looking chicken nuggets or soggy french fries. For many of the millions of public school students, that’s not far off mark. To transform what’s on kids’ plates, parents, teachers and administrators have been working for years, battling entrenched industry interests and paltry school budgets. Now advocates have a powerful tool to help them: a new procurement policy that helps put core values at the center of school food purchasing.

On May 24, the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Trustees is poised to pass the Good Food Purchasing policy to help usher in a new era for school meals, expanding on and codifying the transformational work already under way. The district would be, after Los Angeles Unified, only the second in the nation to do so.

Looking at the policy’s effect in Los Angeles, it’s clear to see the changes it has helped spark. When the district passed the policy, one of its largest suppliers, Gold Star Foods Inc., was inspired to ask tougher questions of its of bread, produce and poultry suppliers. As Gold Star CEO Sean Leer explained: “The way most school districts purchase, lowest price wins, but it should be more thoughtful. Buying food isn’t like buying toilet paper.” Leer is now able to attribute real worth to the suppliers who align with five values of sustainability, nutrition, local economies, animal welfare and worker rights.

Leer also started looking with fresh eyes at his supply chain: What could he localize that wasn’t already? How could he improve the food they offered to students? One answer was produce — and sourcing more of it locally: Before the policy, roughly 10 percent of the produce served in L.A. schools was sourced within 200 miles of the district. Today, from 50 to 72 percent is, depending on the season. That works out to a roughly $12 million redirection of resources to the local economy.

Leer found another answer in wheat. Gold Star had been sourcing out-of-state wheat for its 45 million to 55 million annual servings of bread and rolls. Leer discovered Shepherd’s Grain, a company with growers in Central California. “I committed to turning our entire bread and roll line over to Shepherd’s Grain,” he said.

Understandably, the bakery Gold Star worked with was hesitant to change a key ingredient like flour, but the bakery made the leap. Today, nearly all of the L.A. school district’s bread and rolls are made from wheat grown in Central California, milled in downtown Los Angeles. Compare that with pre-policy wheat: grown in the Dakotas, trucked to Denver, milled there and shipped to California. “The policy gave us a chance to make this huge change,” explained Leer. “And it didn’t cost any more. In fact, we’ve kept the prices the same for the last three years.”

The policy, originally developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, also puts workers at the heart of purchasing decisions — from farmers to delivery workers. Shaun Martinez from the Teamsters union, said: “In school food, margins are extremely thin. Having a policy like this creates a market for people who do good things to actually survive.”

The policy has been used to review relationships, too. In 2015, the five-year, $60 million contract with chicken processor Tyson was up for renewal. Before, the contract always went to the lowest bidder. Now the district was seeking poultry suppliers that didn’t employ practices like the unsustainable use of antibiotics. Gold Star received a $20 million contract to provide the district with chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

All this sounds so promising, but what arguably matters most is what the kids think. Perhaps that’s best summed up by Maylin Brunall, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles: “School — it’s my fancy restaurant now,” she said, with a big smile. “It’s local. It’s fresh. Everyone is treated fairly, and everyone is happy.”

San Francisco has a chance to continue to prove itself as a national leader in school-food reform. The school board trustees can pave the way by approving the new policy.

Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle 

Photo by Paul Chinn, The Chronicle