Kitchen Table Talks: School Food, The Nitty Gritty Details | Civil Eats

Kitchen Table Talks: School Food, The Nitty Gritty Details

At the most recent Kitchen Table Talks session on August 25, the challenges affecting school lunch programs, particularly in San Francisco, was on the menu. With the impending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act and recent articles in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, it seems that now is the time to capitalize on the momentum and advocate for healthier school lunch food policies.

Ed Wilkins, Director of Student Nutrition Services for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), said the biggest obstacles for SFUSD are inadequate staffing, out of date kitchen equipment, lack of infrastructure and training for school lunch employees. SFUSD is the largest feeding program in San Francisco and is facing a $20 million financial shortfall this year. Though San Francisco has one of the highest costs of living, it is not allocated additional school lunch funds. Simply put: the money just does not go as far as it might in other cities. Wilkins believes a critical first step in improving the system is more integration of local farmers, producers and prep staff.

Colleen Kavanagh, executive director of Campaign for Better Nutrition, gave the audience a brief history of the National School Lunch Program which feeds nearly 30 million children each day. Originally, it was established to absorb farm surpluses and provide food to school-aged children. In 1966, President Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act to help meet the nutritional needs of children. Over the years, we have shifted from combating hunger to fighting childhood obesity. The important thing was just to feed children. Now, study after study shows that children perform better in school when fed a nutrition-rich breakfast and/or lunch. Kavanagh noted that we cannot reform the dietary guidelines through the Child Nutrition Act but we can advocate for additional funds and source more fresh (and local when possible) food items.

Lena Brook, parent of a first-grader at SFUSD and founding board member of Urban Sprouts, recently launched a parent advocacy campaign to reform school food programs in the SFUSD. Brook explained that SFUSD operates under the auspices of the California Department of Education, rather than the City and County of San Francisco. Politically, it is important to build support and leadership within the school board first. “Wilkins and his staff are doing the best they can within current constraints but do not have options at their disposal,” said Brook. The parent group is aiming to raise money to support a feasibility study that would look at three to five options for a new food program. Before proceeding with this plan, it requires buy-in and formal support from the School Board and Superintendent Garcia. The SFUSD food program needs more resources to work with if we are to see a real change.

There’s still a lot of hard work ahead for those fighting to improve school lunch, but the issues are finally in the forefront of the public dialog and solutions are gaining momentum.

What Can You Do?

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  • Join SFUSDFoodFuture, the list serve for the SFUSD parent advocacy group on school food.
  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a key player in terms of the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization. During the fall, as Congress takes up the reauthorization measure, San Francisco constituents can call or email her office to ask for her support of child nutrition programs.
  • If you are a parent at an SFUSD school and would like to assist the Student Nutrition Services department with compliance (i.e., ensuring that applications are completed, working with the school leadership to ensure that rules are enforced, etc), please email Lena Brook.
  • Spread the word! Let your community–in the broadest sense of the word–know that this parent advocacy effort is underway. At this point, they need representation from schools throughout the City, but especially from the Southeast and Northern sections.
  • Support Slow Food USA’s Time for Lunch campaign, sign the petition and/or attend one of the 294 Eat-Ins across the country on Labor Day, Sept. 7.

Kitchen Table Talks is a monthly conversation series about the American food system. The next session will be held on Tuesday, September 29 and will focus on Mayor Newsom’s new Executive Directive for Healthy and Sustainable Food for San Francisco. To receive information about Kitchen Table Talks, please send an e-mail to

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Layla Azimi worked as the Communication Coordinator for Slow Food Nation, the first event of its kind, which drew 85,000 people to San Francisco in hopes of building a healthier, more sustainable food system. Co-founder of Kitchen Table Talks, she lives in Napa Valley where she is learning to perfect her marmalade and jam-making skills and planting her first vegetable garden. Read more >

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  1. Thanks so much for holding a talk on such an important topic!

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