Confusion at a San Bruno warehouse meant that lunch was delivered late to elementary schools across The City on the first day of classes, forcing many students to make do with cold cereal as cafeteria staff scrambled to cobble together replacement meals, school officials acknowledged this week.
San Francisco Unified School District officials laid the blame with the contractor that provides the district with precooked frozen lunches. In a statement this week, Illinois-based Preferred Meal Systems apologized for “an unfortunate miscommunication.”
The Aug. 15 blunder affected all of the district’s 75 elementary schools and 46 child care centers.
“For some schools, the late delivery caused only a slight delay, whereas for others, this meant that students were fed lunch hours later than scheduled,” SFUSD nutrition director Ed Wilkins said in an email.
Wilkins said loaded delivery trucks were supposed to leave the company’s distribution center at 6:30 a.m., but the meals were not ready, and the trucks left two hours late. Once the frozen lunches — on that day, chicken nuggets with sweet potatoes or macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables — arrived at schools, cafeteria workers still had to reheat them.
The mixup will cost the district money in several ways. Some workers will receive overtime pay, Wilkins said. The district also will not be reimbursed by the National School Lunch Program for any meals that went uneaten. While a full tally of the costs was not yet available, Wilkins said the district would seek reimbursement from the contractor.
Preferred Meal spokesman Ken Trantowski said the company would work with the district to help offset any losses.
The incident has school lunch activists asking whether the district should continue to rely on the company to stock its cafeterias.
“They have been good about a lot of stuff,” said Dana Woldow, a school food advocate who recently stepped down as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee. “This, however, is a situation that should not have been allowed to happen. Imagine being a kindergartner on your first day — you’re already scared, you left your mom, the school is supposed to take care of things.”
In the 1980s, Woldow said, every school had a kitchen and prepared its own food. But today, with those kitchens gone for space and financial reasons, a new district-operated central kitchen is the only way for city schools to serve fresh food.
“I do think there is support in San Francisco for the idea of scratch cooking,” she said. “I think it’s eminently doable, and it’s the thing to do.”
School board member Jill Wynns agreed that a central kitchen would be ideal, but she said the high cost of building and running it may be prohibitive.
“It’s not going to happen in the next few years,” she said. “It’s a long-term goal.”
Preferred Meal Systems, based in Berkeley, Ill., has provided the SFUSD with all its precooked lunches and breakfasts since 2005.
47,900 Lunches each day
$9 million Contract amount
Source: Preferred Meal Systems’ contract with SFUSD
While San Francisco students dine on reheated entrees with all the aesthetic appeal of airline food, just across the Bay in Berkeley, school fare is fit for a foodie.
“We do everything from scratch,” said Marni Posey, Berkeley Unified School District’s nutrition director. “Our tamales come in and they’re fresh; they weren’t frozen six months ago.”
In Berkeley, Posey said lunch is cooked at the district’s central kitchen, then trucked to schools. That has been happening since 2005, when a revamped program was launched with the backing of local philanthropies, including restaurateur Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation.
“Anything can be done, given sufficient funding,” said San Francisco school food advocate Dana Woldow. “We don’t have the money to change over right now.”
While Berkeley no longer relies on private funds, it does get state money through the obscure Meals for Needy Pupils program. Only some districts have access to the cash because they had to opt in during the 1970s. San Francisco failed to do so.
Although San Francisco’s food comes frozen, school board member Jill Wynns said the meals are nutritious, free from unhealthy additives and packed with whole grains.
“We have the highest nutrition standards of anywhere in the country,” Wynns said. “People in Berkeley might disagree with that, but they have more revenue."