State may run out of school meal funds

MacVean is a Times staff writer.

California may run out of money again this year to supplement school meals, in part because more struggling families are taking part in the free or reduced-price school lunch programs, the state’s superintendent of public instruction said Tuesday.

“Without quick action by the governor and the Legislature, districts will be forced to make a series of unacceptable choices to dip further into their own bare-bones budgets, serve less nutritious foods and not comply with California’s nationally renowned nutrition standards, or reduce cafeteria staffing,” Supt. Jack O’Connell said in a statement.

The federal government provides $2.17 to $2.57 for each free or reduced-price meal, and California provides an additional 22 cents. Last school year, the state money ran out in May, and it is likely to run out earlier this school year, O’Connell said. He is requesting $31.1 million from the general fund to prevent that, he said.

O’Connell said he did not know how many new students have applied for or received free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch this school year. But he said California schools served 4.5% more meals overall in 2007-08 than they did the previous year and he expected that those numbers have continued to rise this year. He and other school officials have said the nation’s troubled economy is likely to increase the need for subsidized meals.

But in the Los Angeles Unified School District, for August, September and October of this year compared with the same period last year, the district saw a 3% increase in free lunches served, a 1% decrease in reduced-price lunches and a 4% increase in the number of regularly priced lunches that students buy, said Dennis Barrett, director of food services. Elementary school students pay $1 for the full-priced lunches and high school students pay $1.50.


L.A. Unified has been working to increase the numbers of students -- paying and not paying -- who eat meals at school. For example, in May 2007, the district served 6.3 million free and reduced-price meals and 859,000 meals that students paid for, according to the food services department. In May 2006, the figures were 6.2 million and 803,000.

If L.A. Unified lost the state supplement, Barrett said, he would look to save money by improving efficiency or reducing menu choices. The loss of free and reduced-price meals, he said, would be devastating.

On a related note, a report issued last month analyzed more than 100 studies of school breakfast programs and found that 10 million children nationwide who were eligible for free or reduced-price school breakfasts had not received them.

“Letting schoolchildren go hungry means that the nation’s investments in public education are jeopardized by childhood under-nutrition,” said J. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health, who was the lead researcher on the breakfast report, which was funded by the Sodexo Foundation, the charitable arm of the food service company.

In L.A. Unified, about 30% of elementary school students who get free or reduced-price school lunches don’t participate in the subsidized school breakfast program, David Binkle, assistant director of food services for the district, said this week. The figure is about 50% for secondary school students, he said.

And those numbers are an improvement, he said, thanks to changes in the way breakfast is offered. One of those is “second-chance” breakfast -- offered not only before school but again during recess or nutrition periods. The other is the addition of carts stocked with “grab and go” breakfasts, which might include whole grain cereal, low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt and fruit.

When a school establishes both of those programs, Binkle said, breakfast participation often increases by 20% to 30%.

Some students come to school without eating breakfast because their families are poor, others because their households are chaotic.

“And a lot of children are not hungry when they wake up” and don’t want to eat before they leave the house. Most districts that don’t provide breakfast say the issue is administrative -- getting cafeteria staffers to work earlier in the morning, getting custodians to clean up after breakfast, possibly shifting bus schedules, Brown said.

“There is some legitimacy to all of that. I don’t think it outweighs the other side of it,” he said in a telephone interview. “We need to do a much better job of teaching school officials what the evidence is. One can hardly have a stronger body of research” saying that eating breakfast helps children learn and behave better, among other benefits.