California unable to determine if charter schools are meeting students’ nutritional needs

A state audit to determine whether public charter school students are receiving nutritional meals on campus could not be fully completed because government databases are not reliable or detailed enough, officials said Thursday.

Student meals: An article in the Oct. 22 LATExtra section about an audit of the nutrition services provided by California charter schools incorrectly stated that a federal law requires public schools to provide needy students with at least one nutritionally adequate meal a day at a reduced price or free of charge. That is a state requirement. —

Although the report found that many California charter schools provide meals to their students, state auditor Elaine Howle said it was not possible to determine how many of the students were eligible for or participating in subsidized lunch and breakfast programs.

Charter schools — independently run, publicly financed campuses — are exempt from the federal law requiring public schools to provide needy students with at least one nutritionally adequate meal a day at a reduced price or for free.

Advocates for low-income families are concerned that this could force some parents to choose between the educational and nutritional needs of their children.


Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D- Santa Monica) said she requested the audit in January because the number of charter schools is growing, and research has shown a link between academic performance and student health.

The audit identified 815 charter schools that were active in California in April. According to Department of Education records, 451 were participating in the subsidized breakfast or lunch programs and 151 did not offer meals because they provide independent study courses or online instruction.

Auditors surveyed the remaining 213 charter schools and received 133 responses. Of those, 46 reported that they provide meals, either by having staff prepare and deliver food or by hiring vendors to do so. The cost of the meals ranged from 50 cents to $5, with some schools using their own resources to offer reduced-price or free meals to qualifying students.

Many of the 39 schools that said they do not provide meals said they believed their students’ nutritional needs were being met because most brought lunch from home.

Some schools said they did not have the facilities to prepare, deliver and serve meals. Others cited a lack of staff and funding to operate a meal program or cope with the administrative requirements of enrolling students for subsidized breakfasts and lunches.

“As schools of choice, parents are fully aware of what the school can and cannot offer,” said Colin Miller, vice president of policy for the California Charter Schools Assn.

George Manolo-LeClair, senior director of legislation for California Food Policy Advocates, said he was heartened by the number of charter schools that provide meals. But he said he still wants to know how many low-income children attend schools that do not offer such programs.

“The expectation for households to provide meals is just not possible for some households that do not have those resources,” he said.

In a letter responding to the audit, Chief Deputy Supt. of Public Instruction Geno Flores said the education department would take steps to reduce reporting errors and better distinguish between traditional and charter schools in its databases.