The San Francisco Unified School District's new fresh-food program has been giving schools a stomachache, as a lack of refrigerators has put the brakes on plans to expand the program.
The SFUSD switched to a new food provider, Revolution Foods, last year as it also increased the number of breakfast, lunch and supper meals served to students.
The new programs have succeeded in feeding thousands of students healthy food, but they have also produced unexpected growing pains, a San Francisco Examiner investigation shows. The district has a lack of refrigerators to handle the extra fresh food, and the increased fresh waste has attracted unwanted guests — rats — for meal times.
The waste is attracting rodents into school cafeterias — a lot more rodents than typically find their way onto school grounds.
“We are working on systematically addressing the needs of our cafeterias as we increase our school food programs,” said Heidi Anderson, an SFUSD spokeswoman. “In fact, this is a common issue across the nation's public schools.”
Since July, the SFUSD has purchased and installed new refrigerators at approximately 20 sites, but the problem persists.
The SFUSD began serving fresh, locally sourced food from East Bay provider Revolution Foods in January 2013. Since then, the program has largely been called a success, if a costly one. Instead of serving frozen meals like in the past, the SFUSD now serves meals cooked in Oakland and prepared in South San Francisco.
Revolution Foods' fresh meals are served in almost all SFUSD elementary schools, along with most middle and high schools.
In financial year 2011-12, under its previous food provider, Preferred Meal Systems of Berkeley, Ill., district food expenditures topped nearly $17 million. After switching to Revolution Foods the district's most recent expenditures are about $19 million for 2013-14 financial year.
The SFUSD's revenue helps offsets those costs. The district's total investment in food was $1.9 million in 2011-12, and $3 million in 2013-14.
“The prior food source was not local and not fresh,” said Matthew Reedy, the principal of Grattan Elementary School. “Having kids eat the food within hours of it being made and not being frozen is a tremendous achievement.”
But the 35,000 meals served daily are creating logistical challenges as the fresher fare (and more of it) increases refrigeration requirements.
The district served 6.2 million meals in the 2013-2014 school year.
The district also introduced a new supper program in 2013, going from zero suppers served in 2012-13 to 30,000 served in 2013-14.
This school year, the district is projected to serve 430,000 suppers to hungry children.
The meals undoubtedly help many hungry kids. Notably, one out of every four San Franciscans is “food insecure,” according to a recent study by The City. Food-insecure is defined as not having access to healthy foods, though many in that number are also starving.
A report by the SFUSD Student Nutrition Services department, recently presented to the Board of Education, outlines the challenges faced by expansion of the fresh-food program.
“A significant number of elementary schools' kitchen equipment, space, and infrastructure are close to capacity — especially with refrigeration,” one Board of Education report says.
The increase in fresh food available — such as hard-boiled eggs, yogurt and milk — has exacerbated the problem of too few refrigerators, the report notes. Some schools are too old structurally to handle an increase in refrigerators.
“Circuit breakers have been blowing when the new equipment is plugged in,” the report notes.
At a September SFUSD Budget and Business Services Committee meeting, Angela McKee, project manager of the district's Future Dining Experience presented the report to the district.
“We're going to think about equipment we have on hand and what can be utilized in these regional spaces,” she said. “Zetta [Reicker] and I have worked very closely on pilot plans for 2015 in terms of what would be needed.”
Among those plans is a central warehouse for food called a District Food Hub. But the hub's potential construction is far off, as even a proposed bond measure is set for 2016.
“If we didn't have infrastructure problems, and we could wave a magic wand to double capacity, could we serve that number of lunches?” SFUSD Board of Education member Rachel Norton asked McKee.
“There's a cap to how many meals we can refrigerate in our sites,” McKee replied. “We have to invest in our infrastructure.”
That infrastructure need may already have pushed some schools to their limits.
Department of Public Health food inspection reports obtained by The Examiner show food was improperly stored in 22 SFUSD school cafeterias since 2013.
The reports also show vermin infestations of various degrees in 41 schools since 2013 or later on in 2014. The Revolution Foods program introduced fresh food to SFUSD schools in 2013.
Most SFUSD schools had health inspection scores above 90, what the Department of Public Health considers a generally favorable score, the department said.
Hoover Middle School on 15th Avenue was cited by health officials for maintaining potentially hazardous food at “135 degrees or above or 41 degrees or below,” and was advised to discontinue storing food at room temperature.
The school's cafeteria was observed storing egg-and-cheese burritos at 70 degrees, though they were delivered cold. Corn, edamame, bags of precooked chicken and ground beef were all improperly stored, according to the Sept. 9 inspection.
Hoover was also instructed to eliminate rodent droppings on the floors in its storage rooms and student service line.
Grattan Elementary, which is located in the Haight, was also cited for rodent activity. Inspectors observed rodent droppings on the floors of its kitchen, under and around the “two door upright 'victory' refrigerator, GE stove, dishwasher area, and a few droppings by student service line.”
Reedy, Grattan's principal, said the issue was related to schoolyard construction. It displaced rodents, which eventually found their way into Grattan. Parent volunteers and others are even now tackling the problem, he said.
“We had a fully operational kitchen in the '70s and the remnants of that exist,” Reedy said of Grattan. “We're well set up for good growth.”
But, he cautioned, “I've been to other schools in the district where this wasn't the case and they struggled.”
Reedy said Grattan introduced regular “super” cleaning efforts to fight back against the rodents.
“We uninvited them,” he said.
Terrance Hong, a senior city health inspector, said the rodent problem may not be solely due to the new Revolution Foods fresh food and lack of refrigeration. Cafeterias suffer from the rodent problems of the school as a whole, he said, and mice often make their way from classrooms into kitchens.
“San Francisco is interconnected,” he said, making rodent populations harder to address in not just schools but restaurants citywide.
But an Examiner review of health inspection data shows many rodent issues began in 2013 — the same time as fresh food was introduced into district schools. Though the rodents are not a new issue in school cafeterias, newly fresh food and the expansion of available meals may have exacerbated an existing problem.
A report from the SFUSD Student Nutrition Services alludes to this.
“With the increase in breakfasts served,” the report notes, “there has been an increase in waste,” which attracts more rodents.
The SFUSD is working with Custodial Services, the Department of the Environment and Recology to develop new classroom-waste procedures to tamp down on the rodent issue.
Michael Cabana, a professor of pediatrics at UC San Francisco's Benioff Children's Hospital, said under-refrigerated food can lead to food poisoning in children.
“From a clinical point of view, whenever food isn't properly refrigerated, you set the condition for any bacteria in the food to thrive and multiply,” he said. “If this was happening on a daily basis, it would be a matter of time before you had kids with food-borne illnesses.”
Severe bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal tract can lead to diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloody stool, he said. Rats and rodents also can pass on salmonella.
“It's great they're doing fresh food,” he said, “but it's also important to have safe food.”
Zetta Reicker, director of Student Nutrition Services at the SFUSD, said refrigeration expansion is an issue the district wants to address, but it may be hamstrung.
“The school nutrition program is a federally funded program,” she said. Grants “come up over different
programs over breakfast expansion,” she said, but often do not provide funding for ongoing equipment purchases.
The SFUSD has a portal for donations to expand its new food services, available at www.sfusdfuturedining.org/donate.
Reports from Student Nutrition Services show the program sees refrigeration as a major detriment to expansion. SFUSD is preparing to expand lunches alone from 21,000 meals per a day to 42,000 meals a day.
And to do that, the district will need more refrigerators.
National funding mechanisms help schools expand healthy food for kids, but do not help the schools purchase new infrastructure.
“This is not a problem unique to [the] SFUSD,” Reicker said.
“The infrastructure and the space of our schools is a challenge.”
This article has been updated to reflect the correct number of meals served in the 2013-2014 school year.