© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KALW News
Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 5 p.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Bay Area schools work to feed all students two free meals daily

Photo 5.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
The cafeteria at the McAteer Culinary Center in San Francisco.

Bay Area Schools Reach to Feed All Students Two Free Meals Daily

When COVID began nearly two years ago, a federal program gave funding to public schools to give out free food to students and their families. The overwhelming number of people who came to get food showed State lawmakers how much families rely on school meals. This past summer, lawmakers set aside funding in the state budget to provide all public school students free breakfast and lunch. 

Their goal was simple—free food for all students, no questions asked. We checked with two Bay Area school districts to see how it’s going. 

On a cool fall morning, the kitchen at McAteer Culinary Center in San Francisco is buzzing with activity. Cook Sonia Aguilar is standing at a stainless steel table chopping lettuce for the next day’s chicken salad. Nearby Ming Yu is scooping chicken adobo into serving dishes. He describes the lunch menu for that day, “Today, lunch for high school, we have a chicken adobo and a turkey taco. I hope they like it!”

The Culinary Center shares campus with two public high schools, The Academy and Ruth Asawa School of The Arts. That ‘They’ Yu is talking about, is the around 400 students who have been eating lunch here since the start of the school year. That’s about half of the student body. Yu says that's up from about a quarter of students who used to eat in the cafeteria before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back then, around one third of students on campus qualified for federally funded free or reduced lunch. Students who didn’t qualify, had to pay full price. To get access to the federal program, families had to fill out applications and students had to enter in a pin number with a cashier when they picked up meals. Families that did not have the time to fill out the applications or who worried that their immigration status might bar them from benefiting from the federal program sometimes did not apply.

During the pandemic that changed. Funding from the United States Department of Agriculture provided food to all students, first through the 2020-2021 school year and then through June 2022.

Then, last summer, money was set aside in the state budget to supplement the federal funding through this year, and replace it at the start of the 2022-2023 school year, when federal funding for universal school meals is set to expire. That state program is called the California Universal Meals Program. Starting June 2022 all public schools in California will not only have more funding to provide two free meals to students, but they will also be required to do so.

California and Maine are the only states in the County with plans to continue free meals for public school students after the federal program ends.

Photo1.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
Josh Davidson, Chef at the San Francisco Unified School District, stands in the kitchen at the McAteer Culinary Center.

BUILDING STUDENT INTEREST

Josh Davidson is the Chef for San Francisco Unified School District. When I meet him he is standing in the center of McAteer’s lime green cafeteria, right next to the kitchen. He;s panting in his mask after a brick walk back to the kitchen from the school garden down the hill. Nonetheless he is energetic; and wearing black crocs and rainbow rimmed glasses.

Davidson is thrilled about the State’s commitment to universal meals for students. He says the federal funding this year has eliminated the red tape that prevented some students who were hungry from getting meals.

It also cuts down on administrative work for school meals programs that previously had to track student payments, and follow-up with their families if they had an unpaid balance. Now, he says, “We just straight up, don't have to do any of that, which also frees up a bunch of our time to work on other things.”

A lot of that recovered time goes into trying to attract more students to the cafeteria, because even though food is available to all, not everyone wants it.

According to Davidson, “We’re at about half now, a little less than half of the students are eating here routinely.”

Convincing students who have other options to eat in the cafeteria can be hard. Especially high school students.

Some prefer to eat food from home. Others just have more attractive options than the school cafeteria. Ave is a senior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. She’s sitting inside the cafeteria waiting for a class to begin and explains, “I'll look at the menu and if it's something I'm going to eat, then I'll get it here. And if not, I'll just Doordash or Postmates or something.”

Part of the challenge school chef’s face is that school cafeteria food does not have the best reputation.

Davidson says in the last few decades, public schools were not being invested in and the limited funding made it hard for schools to provide quality meals. Davidson says school chefs always had to think about the bottom line: “How do we make sure our costs are low enough that we can keep the lights on? Let's just focus on cost cutting, cost cutting, cost cutting, and do what we have to do to make sure that we don't end up laying off hundreds of people.”

“The fact that we can pour our time and attention and love into making sure that they feel like literally physically nourished during their school sets a good baseline for whatever else is going on in their life.”
Davidson

The State’s new investment gives school chefs an opportunity to support students better than they have in the past. “The fact that we can pour our time and attention and love into making sure that they feel like literally physically nourished during their school sets a good baseline for whatever else is going on in their life,” Davidson said.

But feeding everyone requires serious scaling up on what is still a pretty tight budget, even with the new funding.

A TIGHT BUDGET

It starts with nutrition standards. Every meal a school serves has to meet federal nutrition requirements.

“Everyone has to have for lunch at least three of the five offered components, which are grain, proteins, fruits, vegetables and milk,” explains Davidson.

For each meal that meets these standards, the school receives a reimbursement. That is how this funding works. For the 2021-2022 school year, that reimbursement is coming from the federal government and set at a rate of $2.46 cents for each breakfast and $4.31 for each lunch.

Next year, the California Department of Education expects federal funding to return to what it was pre-pandemic. In other words, the federal government will continue funding for families or communities who qualify for free or reduced meals. The State says it will fill the gap by reimbursing meals no longer covered by federal funds.

But across the Bay from San Francisco, Barbara Jellison, the Food Services Director for West Contra Costa Unified School District, says the federal reimbursement rate is not enough to provide the quality meals she would like to serve.

Jellison used to be a restaurant chef and during the pandemic marshalled a team of volunteers and staff to box and serve tens of thousands of meals to students and their families, curbside. She works with the federal reimbursement rate every day, and says it’s not easy to provide meals at that price point in the Bay Area.

“I would challenge any family or person to try to make a meal every single day for that price”
Jellison

“I would challenge any family or person to try to make a meal every single day for that price,” she said.

Part of the challenge, she says, is that that reimbursement is supposed to cover the cost of the food and her staff’s labor.

“It costs labor even just getting the product, if it's pre-packaged, out to our sites and served. But if we're going to scratch-cook a certain item, then that labor goes up even more, even though the food costs might go down a little, since we're preparing it from scratch,” she explains.

Davidson says buying in bulk helps the district get what chefs want and cut down on costs. But right now, he says, SFUSD’s “program isn't big enough to throw its weight around with vendors.” But, the more students get their meals at school, the bigger and powerful the program gets.

Photo 3.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
Cooks for West Contra Costa Unified School District prepare burritos on an assembly line in the district's central kitchen in Richmond.

BUILDING PARTICIPATION

To further complicate things, if the school district makes food that students don’t eat, they don’t get reimbursed. Districts are paid according to the number of meals students pick up. The districts do not get paid for meals they make that students come and eat.

For Davidson and Jellison this means they spend a lot of time trying to figure out how many students will want meals before they buy food.

Jellison says that this year, knowing how many students are going to want a school lunch has been extra hard because of the pandemic.

“Prior to the start of the school year, we were just guessing. We knew that enrollment was possibly 28,000, but we didn't know whether 7,000, 14,000 or all 28,000 were coming to school the first day,” she said. It has not gotten easier since then.

“It's just challenging in so many different ways every day.”
Jellison

“As the days went on, depending on testing and whether the parents continued to feel safe and supported by the District in making sure that their kids were taken care of, day to day, you just never know exactly how many [students] are coming.,” she continued. “I know right now we've had some classrooms have to close because the teachers tested positive and there's a shortage of substitutes. So there’s a struggle with participation…I don't want to send too much [food] out, but I want to be prepared.”

Schools are trying to thread a needle here—Providing the most attractive meals in order to serve as many students as possible, all without making too much and overspending what they will be reimbursed.

According to Jellison, “It's just challenging in so many different ways every day.”

Photo6.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
Barbara Jellison, Director of Food Services for West Contra Costa United School District, stands on the loading dock of the districts central kitchen along with another employee.

COOKING FROM SCRATCH

In part because of that challenge, both districts currently prepare about 25% of their meals in house. The rest they get pre-packed from food vendors. But Josh and Barbara say cooking all meals at district kitchens is the goal.

Davidson says cooking that way is more resilient and responsive: “Having the operations in house and run by people who are specifically trained and empowered to do this work, it means that we can be a lot more flexible when things go wrong, and respond to circumstances and respond to students' requests.”

But both him and Jellison say they also need expanded facilities and staffing to do that.

Many schools in both districts are lacking the on-campus infrastructure they would need to serve the quality of food Jellison and Davidson are aiming for. According to Davidson, “We have elementary schools where we literally have like two steel tables in a gym effectively. That's a really challenging physical environment to do good quality food service.”

This year the State allocated $150 million dollars to help schools build out kitchens and train new staff. The deadline for districts and other local education agencies to opt-in to receive funds is January 14, 2021. Their goal is to disperse the new funds in March.

Schools can also get funding for kitchen infrastructure through bond initiatives that show up on local ballots. Jellison says she’s working to “show our families and our voters in the district that our food service program is focused on offering the healthiest meals possible” so they might support future bond initiatives that would allow the program to expand its facilities.

Photo 4.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
Teacher Iraida Santillan stands in front of her kindergarten class at Grant Elementary School in Richmond. It's the start of the school day and the students are loosely assembled on colorful rug in front of her.

NEW POSSIBILITIES

Davidson and Jellison agree that school meals are about more than just food, and universal school meals open up lots of possibilities.

For one, Davidson says universal meals create opportunities for schools to build relationships with local agriculture. “If we were able to focus the full buying power of the district on the local economy, it would be great for local producers,” he said. “There are all kinds of partnerships we could have. There's so much food grown in Northern California. We could really invest in sustainability for our community and I think in a really valuable way.”

It also means schools can think more innovatively about how to integrate lessons into mealtime. At Grant Elementary in Richmond, teachers are bringing breakfast into the classroom.

Iraida Santillan is a kindergarten teacher there. Everyday her class begins with students lining up and choosing what they’d like to eat for breakfast from a cart laden with fruit, crackers, muffins and cereal. They take their meals back to their tables and Santillan makes the rounds, pouring milk for students who want it.

“I thought it was going to be a hot mess. Like eating in the classroom with tiny humans? We're going to have food everywhere!”
Santillan

When she first heard that the district was serving breakfast in the classroom, Santillan says, “I thought it was going to be a hot mess. Like eating in the classroom with tiny humans? We're going to have food everywhere!”

But she says it turned out better than she thought. Students in her classroom talk about their mornings as they eat, and it eases their transition into the classroom.

“Once you start teaching students like, okay, this is how we are going to eat, these are the expectations, this is how we clean up,” she says, “They are really good! They take ownership of their space and wanting to keep it clean.”

Jellison says eating together in the classroom makes it easier for students who don’t have other options for food. “The stigmatism of the free meal kind of dissipates since everybody's eating together and it's encouraged by the teacher,” she says.

Santillan says that comfort is important because “around half of our kids would probably not eat breakfast at home. If it weren't for this, [they] wouldn't be eating any breakfast actually.”

Photo7.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
SFUSD Cook Patty Baitsong scoops freshly cooked beans into a paper bowl for a student at The Academy. She is working on the serving line at lunch time in the cafeteria at McAteer Culinary Center.

LUNCH IS SERVED

Back at McAteer Culinary Center in San Francisco, Ming and the other cooks are loading the day's lunch into serving trays. Patty Baitsong used to run a Thai restaurant and now works for SFUSD. She is putting the final touches on a salsa for the turkey tacos and sprinkles chopped freshly-roasted jalapenos into a bowl with chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro. “When I marinate this I put a little bit kick, little bit spicy. I cannot do too much! Some kids cannot eat spicy,” she says with a smile.

Students are filling into the cafeteria. The smell of cooked turkey and spices wafts from the serving line.

Emerson, a freshman at The Academy, gathers his tray of food and sits down at one of the round tables with some friends. He reflects on the food in front of him, “I think it's really good for something that's free and it's really nutritious. They make you get fruit and vegetables and stuff. So I think that's really cool…I don't think there has been a lunch so far that I disliked.”

Sitting next to Emerson is his friend Angel. Angel says he has always gotten lunch at school, but notices that the food now is better than what he used to get in middle school. “We would mostly have burgers and pizzas, which at the same time, that's why I'm getting chubby,” he says with a laugh, “but it feels good here. Cause like, they’re serving you good food.”

Ave, who I spoke with before, says she used to go off campus and buy lunch at a strip of stores up the hill from the campus. But, she says, “Having it here and accessible to everyone is a little bit easier, especially I know, like right now, I'm on crutches. But I have a few like disabled friends and going up top wasn't necessarily an option for them.”

Having good food in the cafeteria, that’s free for everyone, means there’s one less thing dividing students. After a year and a half of relative isolation, Ave says that feeling of togetherness is a welcome change.

Photo8.jpeg
Annelise Finney
/
Emerson (far left) and Angel (next to Emerson), freshmen at The Academy, eat lunch with two friends at a round table in the cafeteria at the McAteer Culinary Center in San Francisco.