For low-income students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), lunchtime is not just about a break from class but about obtaining crucial nutrition.

Yet a recent study of the SFUSD school meals program, spearheaded by the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks, found that the food program was not feeding as many children as it could. Making sure more children participate is a priority of school leaders because student hunger directly affects academic performance, as well as health.

Low Participation with High Need

According to results of the study, the SFUSD school meals program has had surprisingly low participation compared to the number of low-income students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The program provides more than 31,000 meals to students every day, but survey data shows that average SFUSD participation in secondary lunch programs was roughly 26 percent last year.

This participation rate is below the national median 44 percent. And just for in-state comparison, San Francisco actually ranks last for school meals participation among all counties in California.

Having Lunch And Not Eating It, Too

The study found that the amount of food consumed was even smaller than participation numbers suggested. Why? Because kids just didn’t like the food – the main lunch entree was noticeably falling short of district standards for presentation, variety and taste. Students who threw their lunch away either went hungry or relied on snacks from vending machines.

The fate of these school lunches is all the more unfortunate given that the SFUSD meal program is starved for money. As of May 2012, the program was projecting a $2.5 million deficit for 2011-2012. While 1 in 5 kids suffer from hunger, and while not enough students are enrolled in the program, why the deficit? And what can we do about it?

Bringing the Eat Local Movement To Our Schools

This deficit is not due to labor costs – the study observed that the district spends more on food than personnel expenses. Rather, the cost comes from food transportation: hot lunch entrees are cooked thousands of miles away, then frozen and transported to San Francisco where they are reheated for student consumption.

SFUSD currently lacks a large central kitchen or a network of regional kitchens, improvements that would cost as much as $100 million according to the study. But by using existing regional kitchens or partnering with other districts such as Oakland Unified, food could be prepared closer to schools and might then become more accessible to the students who need it most.

By bringing the Eat Local Movement into our public schools, we could keep food production closer to the schools, which may cut transit and preservation costs and even improve food freshness and taste. If food tastes better – perhaps fewer students would throw away their meals. And with more delicious school lunches, perhaps the students who qualify for – but are not enrolled in – the program will catch a whiff of what’s cooking and join in.

When 1 in 5 of our students are going hungry, we absolutely must look to smarter ideas that could help. What do you think?