Amid a growing demand from residents in need of nutritious food, San Francisco officials are seeking to boost usage of the school district’s free meals program and to double food stamp participation.
The plan aims to enroll the estimated 50,000 people who are eligible for food stamps but are currently not receiving the federal benefit.
These two strategies were identified among others in a new study to improve residents’ food access. Officials say the hunger issue impacts some 220,000 residents living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in The City, affecting children of low-income families in the Mission to low-income seniors in the Richmond.
The 2013 Food Security Task Force report released this month highlighted the importance of improving the usage of the San Francisco Unified School District’s free meal program. There are approximately 53,000 children in the school district, with 62 percent, or 32,000, eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, the study said.
“During 2011-12, approximately 40 percent of all students ate lunch daily in SFUSD, about 59 percent of low-income students ate lunch, and far fewer (9 percent) ate breakfast,” the study states.
Feeding students the meals they need in the summer has also been a challenge. “Only about 8,500 children eat free lunch through the Summer Lunch program — roughly a quarter of the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals during the school year,” the report said.
A representative of the school district said school officials are taking the low participation seriously.
“This is a huge priority for our superintendent and our board,” said Judy O’Keefe, a school administrator. “The access to healthy nutritious meals is critical to academic achievement. You cannot disconnect the two.”
Improvements underway include serving supper instead of simple snacks in the district’s after-school programs and exploring ways to boost eating of breakfast, such as allowing kids to eat that meal during their first-period classes.
O’Keefe said the district is also looking to upgrade its “really, really old” dining areas “to create a more attractive” experience. Also, they want to add healthy food vending machines and grab-and-go areas to make meals more convenient.
“We are working to increase participation to make sure our students are eating three meals a day because we believe it is critical,” O’Keefe said.
The school program could also help the city increase usage of food stamps, known as CalFresh in the state, which currently has about 51,000 participants.
“In 2012-13, approximately 26,000 SFUSD school children were eligible for free meals based on income, and presumably most of these children also would be income-eligible for CalFresh benefits. Yet as of mid-2013 only 13,079 school-aged children were enrolled in CalFresh,” the study said.