It’s no secret that, although progress has been made, school lunches need help. This is a national project, and an important one. One of the proving grounds is San Francisco, where the school district is joining with researchers from the Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health to evaluate a project designed to increase school lunch participation, improve nutrition, reduce waste and ultimately counter tendencies toward obesity.
I took a look at a pilot project for this program by visiting Roosevelt Middle School and chatting with Zetta Reicker, who’s the director of the school system’s student nutrition services, and Kristine A. Madsen, an associate professor at the school of public health. (I also talked to a few kids, and ate lunch. Which was — for institutional food — better than O.K.)
For me, the primary takeaway is that since school food is often healthier than what many kids get at home, participation isn’t just a matter of economics (the more kids served, the more efficient the program), but can have a real impact on kids’ health. We want kids to be eating school lunches, because those are the only meals most get that are prepared according to constantly evaluated and (we hope) ever-improving standards. So the goal is to encourage kids to eat it.
To that end, access to lunches has been improved; there was a time when a cash-paying kid got more choices than a free-lunch candidate, and now the system in San Francisco is blind to how the lunch is paid for. Food is made available not only in the cafeteria but outdoors during recess and in hallways (preventing cafeteria lines that were so long that kids were getting their food as the next class was starting). And the food is better; what was once frozen is now prepared fresh.
This being the Bay Area, there’s even a tech aspect to the program: Kids are able to preselect meals on smartphones, where they’re also being provided nutritional information about the food being offered.
Space is being modernized and made more relaxed. As Madsen said to me, “There are so many things they’re trying to fit into the school day that it’s really hard to make lunch kind of a good social experience, which is really what kids need; every study shows that if you sit down and relax over a meal, everyone is better off.” If kids learn those habits in school, the next generation of adults will be much wiser eaters.