The San Francisco School Board voted Tuesday to end the contract with its primary food vendor, despite warnings that there are few options for finding another provider in time to serve students this summer and next fall.
“We need to feed our students. We are in a situation that if this doesn’t pass we have no plan B,” Jennifer LeBarre, SFUSD’s director of Student Nutrition Services, said of the contract at Tuesday’s school board hearing.
In a 4-3 vote, the school board voted down the $11 million contract with Revolution Foods, with Commissioners Allision Collins, Gabriela Lopez, Faauga Moliga, and board president Stevon Cook voting against the renewal. The board members cited the amount of food wasted daily by students dissatisfied with the company’s meals as the main reason for their vote.
According to district staff, the decision could render the SFSUD unable to serve some 292,000 meals to students this summer, and threatens the jobs of 60 dining staff during that time. Plans for providing the approximately 30,000 daily meals needed at more than 100 school sites in the fall are also up in the air.
Prior to the vote, district staff had recommended that the board renew the contract for another year to allow time for the results of a plate-weight study on the district’s food waste conducted in conjunction with U.C. Berkeley to be released.
LeBarre told the San Francisco Examiner that the district will conduct its own survey at select school sites next week to measure lunchtime food waste and the reasons driving students to toss their lunches. Those results will be presented to the school board at its May 7 hearing.
If necessary, the school board can opt to reverse its decision and extend the contract with Revolution Foods, which expires on June 30, at that time. In order to find a new vendor, the district would need to issue a request for proposals to solicit new bids, which is a 90 day process.
LeBarre added that the district has engaged in efforts with Revolution Foods over the past school year to improve the taste of the food and that it is too soon to quantify the outcomes of that work.
According to SFUSD Chief of Policy and Operations, Orla O’Keeffe, the district agrees that “we are nowhere near our vision of what we want school meals to be and we have a long way to go.”
O’Keeffe said efforts are focused on decreasing reliance on outside vendors by preparing more meals in-house, at district-owned facilities. The district is expected to open a kitchen in August that will serve some 3,000 meals per day — but that is not enough to meet the current need.
The district’s nutritional and procurement guidelines are among the strictest in the nation, and financial and capacity issues limit the district’ already small pool of local vendors.
“The industry of massive volumes of school foods [providers] is incredibly limited,” said O’Keefe, who added that the district put out a bid for vendors last year and only had three respondents, one of which did not qualify. The district is reimbursed at about $3 per meal.
“Price is a factor, as well as meeting nutritional guidelines and volume,” said O’Keeffe. “Other local vendors’ maximum volume is 18,000 [meals] per day.”
But several of the dissenting commissioners argued that these issues were clearly discussed a year ago,and that the contract was renewed despite concerns by a majority of the board.
“I feel like it’s deja vu all over again — this is the same conversation we had last year. It’s alarming that we don’t have a waste audit at this point,” said Sanchez, who was the principal at Cleveland Elementary School. He said he can attest to the amount of food tossed out daily by students “without even tasting it.”
“Kids are going to the line, picking up their food, going to the waste bin and dumping it because it’s inedible to them,” he said.
Collins said that her own eighth grade daughters stopped eating meals provided by their schools five years ago, and expressed concerns about equity in relation to the quality of the meals served by the district.
“This is an issue that impacts low-income kids. My kids opt out because we either have the money or I have the time to make them lunches,” said Collins.
School board student delegate Jiayu Mai, who is a senior at San Francisco International High School, said that he has seen slight improvements in the quality of school meals over the past four years, and expressed concerns over terminating the Revolution Foods contract abruptly.
“Summer is just around the corner,” said Mai. “A lot of students rely on the free meal provided by the school district — their words need to be heard. They are the people that consume it, not the board.”
With actual data on how much food is wasted by students daily still outstanding, the commissioners relied on anecdotal information on the quality of Revolution Foods’ meals.
Cook said that he put out a call on Facebook last month for feedback on the quality of SFUSD’s school meals, and received overwhelmingly negative responses from students and their families.
“What I’ve heard is, some days everybody wants [certain food items] and not everybody gets it because it’s really popular. Other days no one touches it because it doesn’t look edible or is not good,” said Cook.
Cook said that an urgency around addressing food waste and improving the quality of meals has existed for several years, and criticized the district for failing to act before now.
“If there is no other plan B, it allows me to believe that since you couldn’t find one in a year you won’t be able to find one by next year,” said Cook. “We are spending $11 million….and no one likes the food and we live in a food capital — we can do better. So I can’t vote yes on this.”