Erminia Benitez, left, and Linda Williams put taco shells into serving baskets at the new culinary center at The Academy - San Francisco at McAteer on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFUSD going back to basics with school lunches made from scratch

Upgraded culinary center could serve as model for expanded in-house food production.

A newly upgraded kitchen at the Academy-San Francisco at McAteer may serve as a model in the coming years for a central facility that could feed all of the San Francisco Unified School District’s students with meals made “in-house.”

Planning for the McAteer Culinary Center, which was unveiled Tuesday, began some three years ago. The new kitchen is expected to serve about 2,800 students enrolled in early education programs throughout The City, as well as high school students at McAteer and Ruth Asawa School for the Arts.

The kitchen is “a sign of more to come in terms of scratch cooking and meal production instead of meal assembly,” SFUSD Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh said at its unveiling on Tuesday. In recent years, the district has struggled with significant daily food waste by students dissatisfied with the current meal provider, Revolution Foods.

Earlier this year, the school board initially voted to cancel an $11 million contract with the company. However, they reversed that decision at a vote in June and opted to extend the contract for the 2019-20 school year after district officials warned that the decision would have prevented SFSUD from serving some 292,000 meals to students this past summer and threatened the jobs of 60 dining staff.

On Sept. 18, the district launched the search for a new meal provider by publishing a Request for Proposals. The RFP process will remain open until Nov. 12, according to SFUSD’s director of Student Nutrition Services, Jennifer LeBarre.

In the period between Nov. 12 and Nov. 27, the district will host “community tasting panels,” during which students, parents and SFUSD staff will be invited to “do blind taste testing of the food and rate” meals prepared by applicants. The winning proposal will be submitted to the school board for final approval on Jan. 14, and a new contract would become effective on July 1, 2020.

In all, SFUSD’s food contractor serves 7.5 million meals annually, or about 30,000 daily meals to some 54,000 students in 136 schools across The City, at the cost of $4.9 million a year.

Some 20 schools throughout the district currently have “kitchens at varying capacities,” according to LeBarre. Most are also supported by Revolution Foods and the District’s Refresh program.

Freshly prepared grab-and-go items sit in a refrigerated case inside the new culinary center at The Academy - San Francisco at McAteer. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

At McAteer, the new kitchen features energy-efficient equipment, including “serving lines that serve freshly-made bulk food rather than pre-packaged meals, a dishwasher allowing for use of reusable dishes, a washing machine allowing for use of cloth napkins, and a milk dispenser serving certified organic,” according to a statement issued by SFUSD on Tuesday.

Construction was funded by a 2016 General Obligation Bond, the San Francisco Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax, SF Environment and the Someland Foundation.

“Since 2013, we have been lucky to have public-private partnerships…that have made it possible for us to do innovative changes for how we operate and to develop a compelling vision we’re driving toward,” said Orla O’Keeffe, SFUSD’s chief of policy and operations. “This is the first of many opportunities we hope to have through these partnerships.”

The new kitchen also includes a redesigned dining area that “features new furniture, digital menu screens, and graphics of trees and landscapes as part of the student’s request to bring the scenery the campus enjoys indoors,” SFUSD said in its statement.

“We know that hungry students have a harder time concentrating and getting the most out of their school experience. I’m proud that it’s a priority for our district to ensure students receive high-quality and sustainably sourced meals, and that they receive those meals in an inviting space,” School Board President Stevon Cook said.

According to LeBarre, the vision for a central kitchen in the district that would support “all schools in varying degrees” would require additional funding from a future bond. She said that the district is tentatively planning another bond for the 2022 election.

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