Shortages eat away at California’s free lunch program

Districts undertaking massive increase in meals ordered

At Dougherty Valley High School, staff shortages and COVID safety protocol are hampering the variety and quality of meal options under the state’s new free lunch program.

The program was established in June partially due to an unexpected budget surplus. With $54 million in state funding this year, the initiative aims to feed all 6.2 million California public school students free meals every day. According to a report by the Associated Press, the goal is to “prevent the stigma of accepting free lunches and feed more hungry children,” not just those who qualify for federal assistance. 

The California Department of Education said the program has 1,971 School Nutrition Program officers feeding 6.1 million students, with this year seeing as much as a 30% to 60% increase in lunch purchases. 

As a result, districts are undertaking a massive increase in meals ordered

“We used to do maybe 700-800 meals a day, and that number has jumped to almost 2,000 per day,” Dougherty Child Nutrition Site Manager Stephanie Curry said. 

Based on federal requirements, the district’s nutritional analyst creates menus for each student age group (elementary, middle, high school). Meals are distributed to individual schools depending on the student population’s lunch needs. 

But before meals can be consumed by students, there are a few issues at each step of the distribution process — starting with manufacturers. 

With the unpredictable supply line during virtual learning, meal manufacturers shifted their business focus to retail, grocery, healthcare and other sectors. Since school meal production is not increasing to match the rise in the number of students consuming the food (an increase to 80%-90% from 5%-10%), school districts are forced to ration food as weekly orders are taking much longer to place and process. 

“Anybody that’s not in the industry or [doesn’t] see it firsthand just doesn’t know the severity of the strain in the supply chain, and how it’s such a trickle-down effect,” said Peter Woods, regional sales manager of Gold Star Foods, the company which distributes food to the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

Lead times have gone from seven to 35 days, according to Woods, which was “unheard of” during pre-pandemic school food service. Schools simply don’t have a choice to provide variety in their meal plans because they have to work with what they have over a long timeframe, he said. 

Even if schools are able to order the proper meals, materials necessary for providing and transporting food are facing shortages as well. From foam trays distributed along with food to rubber for food truck tires, the scarcity of these items are preventing food from reaching schools and students.

“Where an average cost of a foam tray is maybe four or five cents, paper or some other material is eight cents to 12 cents,” Woods explained. “It’s very expensive… There are distributors across the country that are giving 30 to 60 days notice of cancellation to school districts that they’re just dropping them.”

Student concerns about meal quality and variety are also being raised, mainly caused by food safety requirements. Pre-pandemic, Dougherty offered about 12 options for the main meal on a daily basis for school lunch, including multiple types of salads, hamburgers. This was possible because most meals were cooked from scratch, Curry said. 

However, the pandemic, coupled with an explosion of daily necessary meals, renders the pace of scratch cooking unfeasible. Food is prepackaged and laid out in speed lines to maximize efficiency and safety, requiring the reheating of pre-cooked items from food distributors as the most practical cooking method, Curry furthered. This has limited the variety to solely items available from the food distributor. 

Vegetarian food with proper veggies needs to be prepared fresh, but the limited food items, along with a lack of facilities to accommodate the rise in orders, means fewer vegetarian options. Additionally, there’s a narrow list of vegetarian foods that can be served to students.

“There’s a quote requirement around protein, and historically that’s been met with animal based protein or beans and legumes, there haven’t really been a lot of plant based proteins that were approved,” said Zetta Reicker, director of child nutrition & warehouse at San Ramon Unified. “There’s a very specific Food Buying Guide that’s approved by the USDA, and unless an item is listed in the Food Buying Guide, we’re not allowed to have it. So it’s been very restrictive in terms of a lot of items that you know the community would want to have.” 

Hand-in-hand with the food preparation issue is staff shortages. According to Reicker, Dougherty needs at least 11 nutritional staff members on site but currently has seven.

“We’re serving more than twice the number of students, and we have less staff than we’ve ever had,” Reicker said. “We were serving 360 students before. Right now we’re averaging 1,500 students a day, and we’re serving it in 15 minutes with four or five staff. It’s a phenomenal feat.”

As a result, the school does not have enough hands to carry out scratch cooking on the scale needed to feed all students, which is another reason why prepackaged meals are being served instead. 

While production faces a multitude of problems on the back end, many students complain of bad quality lunches. 

Junior Kajol Prasad receives school lunches daily. However, many of the school lunches haven’t reached her expectations. 

“The lunches are usually kind of bad, but sometimes they are okay,” she said. “Most of the time, the lunches are pretty edible, but the bad ones have a lot of cheese and the cheese doesn’t taste [fresh].” 

Despite the difficulties Dougherty faces with the free lunch program, Reicker believes the issues are temporary.

Reicker wants to host input workshops where students and parents will be invited to share their thoughts on how the quality, distribution and other aspects of school meals can be improved. 

Zetta also shared the prospect of having students offer opinions through an online form.

“It is more than just designing the menu, it’s thinking about what kind of connection you are wanting to have with your food,” she said. 

Past workshops with schools in Walnut Creek and San Francisco have been productive and shown promise for replication elsewhere, she said. For example, there are plans in Walnut Creek to have monthly taste testing of menu items by students to ensure food quality, parents volunteering to taste foods (in back-to-school school nights or open house), and more vegetarian and culturally diverse options.

The San Ramon Valley district plans to begin student workshops during the 2022 spring semester.

“I’m excited to hear what the San Ramon Valley students are interested in; we can tailor the program according to what you all need,” Zetta said. 

In terms of staff shortages, the district is “working creatively” to recruit more workers, Reicker said. 

One plan in the works is a district-run series of Zoom sessions resembling a virtual job fair to encourage more people to apply for open positions at school sites, which include more than just child nutrition-related jobs. Custodians and bus drivers are among the other staff needed in the San Ramon Valley.

As for students, Reicker has a way for them to help out too: participate in the program. 

“The more meals that we can claim for reimbursement, the more money we get. We’ll turn that money back into the program, and it will become better, but it will take time,” she said.