RSF school board assesses how to meet new state requirements for free breakfast and lunch
Starting in the 2022-23 school year, California will become the first state in the nation to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program, providing free breakfast and lunch to all children. every school day. Under the new law passed last year, all students can request free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.
The Rancho Santa Fe School District faces some challenges in implementing this new requirement – unlike neighboring large school districts, they do not have district kitchen or meal service staff and equipment.
By law, schools without cafeterias are not exempt.
Currently, Rancho Santa Fe’s school catering service is provided by Ki’s in Cardiff and approximately 180 students attend each day. Historically, Rancho Santa Fe has had few children who qualify for free and reduced meals, Superintendent Donna Tripi said. Ki’s always had extra meals on hand for students who forgot or needed a meal that day.
The district has two options on how to proceed, seek state reimbursement for meals or go the more flexible non-reimbursement route. At its May 26 meeting, the school board discussed what might be the most sustainable option.
With the no-refund option, the school would likely continue to use its lunch provider Ki’s at a cost of $56,000 to $110,000 per school year with approximately 50 to 125 students participating in the free option.
This option would require no impact on staff, no paperwork, no health permits and some flexibility in the meals provided.
“The downside is we’re going to have to pay for lunches and we don’t know what the demand will be,” said Allison Oppeltz, district finance manager.
RSF school board chairman Jee Manghani said he thought 125 students was a low estimate – if something is offered for free, he thinks more students would want to participate, perhaps closer to 500 children per day.
With the state reimbursement option, the district would need to acquire a health license and become a licensed school food authority, a thorough three to four month application process. They should follow the requirements of the National School Lunch Program, which includes tracking meal habits and serving milk at every meal.
Meal reimbursement rates are expected to be released in July, but Oppeltz estimates the reimbursement to be between $10,000 and $20,000.
The district will have to bid for the meal provider, and upon preliminary research, they discovered that only the Kis will provide servers and they may need to hire nutrition staff. There would also be equipment costs, such as food warmers and milk coolers. If they opt for reimbursement, it is also recommended that they hire a food service consultant, a cost of approximately $15,000 to $20,000, to help with the health permit, maximize the reimbursement options of the State, train staff and recommend a sustainable plan.
In the first year, the district can expect a thorough state audit of the program, Oppeltz said, followed by an audit about every three years.
During their discussions, the council had questions about food waste, liability issues around food allergies and whether they would remove the choice – in order to provide a free and fair meal option, it may there are no longer the same options for students who order lunch each day (currently Ki’s offers 25 different selections each day).
The board was divided on the way forward, with the majority leaning towards non-reimbursement and not getting into the restaurant business. Administrator John Tree said he thinks the district should try to go it alone with no refund to begin with: “If it gets unwieldy, then go for the refund.”
Tree also feared expanding the reimbursement program and then seeing funding cut by the state in the event of a budget shortage.
Manghani said he was strongly in favor of the refund option, as was trustee Rosemarie Rohatgi.
“I feel like we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure we’re spending the money properly,” she said. “If there is a way to pay back – and I know there are a lot of hurdles – I think we should do it.”
Manghani noted that the universal meal plan seems to be another example of a “one size fits all” state idea: “If they force us to do something, they should pay for it.”
Oppeltz didn’t have the answers to many of the board’s questions because a lot of state information is pending on this new program. With so many unknowns, the council decided to wait to make a decision until the start of the school year on August 15 of the 2022-23 school year.