Meet a Changemaker: San Francisco Unified School District’s Anne Moertel

As COVID-19 forced school online in March, Anne Moertel, Design and Communication Strategist for San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), jumped into action finding new and safe ways to make school food programs accessible to more families than the district had ever served before.

In this episode of “Meet a Changemaker,” we celebrate Moertel and SFUSD’s quick work leveraging community relationships, alternative communication platforms and families’ feedback. Read on to learn more about what civic innovation means to Anne and some of the “aha!” moments along the way while the district wholly reinvented its food programs.

The district’s Grab & Go program has fed 3 million plus meals to children since March. Follow SFUSD Student Nutrition Services on Twitter @SFUSDSchoolFood and follow Anne @annemoertel.

Can you briefly describe your role at SFUSD?

I provide communication and design support for school food programs. Interesting fact: my position is actually funded by the San Francisco soda tax!

My position provides awareness and increases students’ access to healthy food options at school. That’s still the goal, but in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my role has expanded to increasing food access for all children in San Francisco.

What does civic innovation mean to you? What draws you to this field?

For me, civic innovation means making room to improve how we’re providing central services. Things are changing every day for the community — the technology that people use, the languages that people speak, etc. Civic innovation is about acknowledging the changing needs of San Francisco residents and working to better meet them.

I’m interested in this work because to really increase access and reduce barriers to services, you have to go to a service’s source. There’s a lot of value in partnering with external organizations and people. But I have the privilege of being an internal City employee. I get to see the full picture of our challenges, our opportunities, our budgets, our staff… and can provide more nimble communications and design. I’m able to better respond to questions with that full context — or come up with a new idea that’s nuanced and won’t burden staff members.

When I think about civic innovation, it’s about improving our communities’ experiences and stripping away barriers from essential City programs.

Like many City departments, SFUSD has been and continues to be impacted by COVID-19. What is a challenge that you’ve had to tackle?

When our school buildings closed on March 16, we wanted to provide food that very week. Our challenge was to shift operations from school cafeterias to sites where free meals could be picked up and prepared at home. We called this the Grab & Go program.

Part of the challenge was to make sure that SFUSD families were aware of the Grab & Go program. San Francisco continues to surprise me with how diverse the population is — there are many languages, pedestrians versus drivers, and different ways that communities access services. As part of the awareness challenge, we wanted to make sure we weren’t just relying on digital outreach but using every communications channel available.

Another challenge was responding to the shifting policies — not just shelter-in-place policies, but changing regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well.

For example, originally, in March, we could provide free food to all children 18 and younger. Then, in August, we could only serve meals to our students. If students were eligible, they could receive the meals for free — otherwise, they were charged. Then, a few weeks later, all children could receive free meals again.

The Grab & Go program wasn’t only about running a meal program outside school buildings, but ensuring that we were able to follow the many regulations. But we also wanted to make sure the changing policies didn’t become a burden to families.

How did you meet that challenge? What were some ‘aha!’ moments along the way?

The Grab & Go program is about food access. It’s essential. Every Wednesday, families can pick up a bag of five days’ worth of meals (including breakfast, lunch, supper, fresh fruits and vegetables and milk) for their children.

It’s incredibly important to generate awareness about the program through every form of communication we have. Our website, our social media… using Google Maps to make it easy to find the nearest meal site. We text families. We use postcards and flyers.

We also rely on partners to get the word out. A number of partners provide food resources on their websites and maps, and we worked with them to keep the information accurate and up to date. We also work closely with leaders of community-based organizations, empowering them to be communication champions for the Grab & Go program. Some even opened meal sites at their locations. Additionally, the 85 staff members serving meals at our 18 meal sites know the families well. We make sure our staff are aware of policy changes, what’s in the meal bags and where all the other meal sites are so they can relay the information to the families they serve.

It’s about considering your audience and how they receive information. Ensuring that we meet them where they are.

One great example is how we communicated about Pandemic EBT or “P-EBT” through our Instagram stories. As part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress approved a food benefit worth $365 per eligible child in California. It was available while schools were closed from March to June 2020, and could be accessed in the form of a debit card (or a P-EBT card) that can be used in grocery stores.

By using Instagram and asking folks to direct message or DM us directly about eligibility, the engagement felt more casual, accessible and responsive. And since P-EBT is open for undocumented families as well, chatting through Instagram may have felt more comfortable than submitting a comment or question on a government website.

We’ve also improved the Grab & Go program along the way. Since their inception in March, the meal bags have included healthy food that meet nutrition guidelines set by the USDA. But we continuously try to improve the quality of food and expand options. We’ve introduced whole produce like melons, cucumbers, cartons of organic strawberries — local items that support local farms.

Overall, I’m so impressed with SFUSD’s ability to innovate despite constraints and make an impact. As of this week, we served over 3 million meals through the Grab & Go program!

What are some opportunities that lie ahead for SFUSD?

Parents are really engaged in our Grab & Go program. I’m not a parent, but I can imagine there are so many parts of a parent’s day in addition to being their child’s caregiver and partner in education. I have been surprised that parents still make time to connect with us and provide feedback — we use it to improve the program! For example, we heard from parents that the meal bag pick-up time is not convenient with students’ fall school schedules. We are working to change that. We’re also going to use Zendesk to help us gather feedback and respond to parents more quickly and make their experience better. We want to continue to work with families to design the best solutions.

Our department is an example of City government’s adaptability during this challenging time. When I think about adaptability, it’s things like understanding the policies that allow us to serve free meals and making sure that we’re well set up for that. It’s about expanding our job responsibilities to meet the needs of the community. Our nutritionist, for example, helps distribute meals at Mission High School. I’ve even been doing more public policy and advocacy work.

For folks like me working in nutrition, a silver lining is that people’s attention is on school food and it’s well past time that we’re all aware of the programs serving kids. I will always be an advocate for that.

Fun question! What’s your favorite lunch place in San Francisco?

Dragon Eats in Hayes Valley! I haven’t been there in months but it was definitely a standby for lunch.

ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO UNITED SCHOOL DISTRICT

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the seventh largest school district in California, educating over 57,000 students every year. San Francisco is both a city and a county; therefore, SFUSD administers both the school district and the San Francisco County Office of Education (COE). This makes SFUSD a “single district county.”

SFUSD’s mission is to provide each and every student the quality instruction and equitable support required to thrive in the 21st century.

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San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation, making @sfgov more collaborative, inventive and responsive to San Franciscans. #civicinnovation