Weeks after rejecting a contract with San Francisco Unified School District’s primary food vendor, school board members took a step back Tuesday in the face of mounting concerns that the decision could leave students without meals in the coming months.
Last month, district staff warned that ending the contract with Revolution Foods could leave SFSUD unable to serve some 292,000 meals to students this summer, and threaten the jobs of 60 dining staff. At Tuesday’s board meeting, several students spoke in favor of extending the contract, voicing concerns that some of their peers would be forced to go hungry.
With a unanimous vote, the board on Tuesday renewed the district’s $11.5 million contract with Revolution Foods for one year, giving the district time to search for a new vendor and invest in kitchen facilities that could eventually let it prepare and serve a majority of meals in house.
But board members were dissatisfied with the limited data available on food waste and student meal satisfaction, and several expressed ongoing concerns about the quality and equity of meals served to SFUSD’s students.
“It feels like the urgency is not there. There are supply issues, taste issues… A lot of the feedback we have heard from students [tonight] doesn’t match with what I’ve heard from students,” said School Board President Stevon Cook, who both acknowledged and criticized the lack of alternatives.
“I will vote yes on this contract, but it’s only because we have to. That’s a crappy position to be in,” he said.
The district spends $5.3 million to serve 7.8 million meals annually at some 130 school sites. Revolution Foods has been its main provider for those meals since the district opted to serve freshly prepared rather than frozen meals in 2013.
Students and staff agreed that the switch to Revolution Foods, which prepares meals in the East Bay and then delivers them to school sites, was a notable improvement over previous options. However school board leaders in recent years have criticized the company over students’ continued complaints regarding the taste and presentation of the meals.
District officials said that they are working on conducting a plate-weight study on the district’s food waste in conjunction with U.C. Berkeley, and in the past weeks gathered feedback from some 1,000 students in a taste-testing survey, the results of which were not presented to the board on Tuesday.
“We want to make sure before we share data with the board that we have really ‘kicked the tires,’” said SFUSD Chief of Policy and Operations, Orla O’Keeffe, who added that a rigorous “three-part survey” will soon be released.
O’Keeffe has said previously that the district’s troubles in finding a new vendor are in part due to its nutritional and procurement guidelines, which are among the strictest in the nation, and financial and capacity issues that limit an already small pool of local vendors.
“I’m interested in data, and we didn’t really get any data on taste. I have to say I’m really frustrated about that,” said Board member Alison Collins. “Our most needy kids, we should be giving them the best food ever. If it’s their only meal, it should be amazing. What I’m hearing from a lot of folks is that we should renew this contract because we need to feed kids, and that’s not the conversation we should be having.”
Revolution Foods CEO Kristin Groos Richmond said that the company is the only company “in the nation that provides school meals that include nothing artificial.”
“We will always have a ways to go. Food is an effort of continuous improvement. We are excited to work with you all to report on how we are doing, to make sure that we are hitting the mark,” said Richmond.
“For me as a kid growing up with food insecurity, I understand what that’s like,” said Revolution Foods Vice President Cliff Lyles. “The reason we are here is to make sure every kid that wants a meal, needs a meal, gets it.”
But Cook said that the district can and should aim higher. He noted that the school board on Tuesday didn’t hear from children and families who cannot opt out of the school lunch program, and who don’t have the ability to participate in public hearings.
“I know what it is to be hungry. I grew up on food stamps,” said Cook, adding that the obvious choice of the evening was to vote for “food versus no food.”
“This is very emotional for me — of course we want you to eat, but to have a reductionist, scarcity mindset with people who are vulnerable is disrespectful,” he said.