REGIONAL — Costs are up, revenue is down. A massive budget deficit looms over the food service program at the Dublin Unified School District (DUSD).
DUSD officials are trying to solve this conundrum caused by the sudden unexpected closure of schools in a way you might not expect: by offering free breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week to every student in the district, regardless of financial status.
“It might feel weird to take advantage of that, because you might be thinking you’re costing the district money,” said Chris Hobbs, Dublin school’s interim assistant superintendent of business services. “The reality is, we get reimbursed by the federal government for every meal we serve.”
The additional volume of paid meals helps to cover the overhead expenses, including the fixed labor costs for cafeteria workers.
The free meal program expansion is part of the federal government’s coronavirus response.
To ensure school nutrition programs stay afloat and students continue to have access to nutritious meals during the public health emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in October extended emergency waivers for income eligibility and other requirements for participants of its national free school lunch program through at least the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
The federal program aims to remove regulatory hurdles and to provide flexibility for school food programs undergoing funding challenges and uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus. The free grab-and-go meals for students also provide some relief for parents juggling day jobs with the added role of helping to teach children at home engaged in distance learning.
The program is not without critics, and was described this fall in a scathing Wall Street Journal commentary by Julie Gunlock as a “welfare loophole” under the headline “Government Cheese for Wealthy Moms: How to have lunch at taxpayer expense and feel virtuous about it.”
Even so, hard-hit school food programs nationwide, including those in the Tri-Valley, are responding by expanding free meal programs.
The Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD) now offers to all students under 18 three free meals a day and a snack at eight school sites. Pleasanton Unified School District (PUSD) has made its drive-thru meal service at seven locations “free for all families in need” and has added weekend meals. Pleasanton will also waive its application requirement for no-cost meals.
Aside from periodic meal price hikes, the Nutrition Services Department is seldom on the Dublin school board’s radar because it is ordinarily a self-sufficient part of the district’s operations, Hobbs told the Board of Trustees at its Dec. 15.
This year is different.
Schools shuttering in March upended the entire business model for many nutrition programs.
For every dollar DUSD usually receives in reimbursement for free or reduced-price lunches, cash sales at its cafeterias traditionally account for an additional $4 in revenue, Hobbs said.
The closure of cafeterias meant the food program’s main funding source was vaporized.
Complicating matters was an obligation to keep kitchens open to serve students who depend on free school meals, and an agreement to retain food worker positions under a labor agreement between DUSD and the California School Employees Association.
While the number of meals served steadily increased during the fall semester, the number of meals served now is just a fraction of what is normally served when students are in school. The gap between expenses and revenue for the DUSD nutrition program has continued to grow. The deficit is on pace to reach $1.7 million by October 2021, based on current numbers.
However, Hobbs said he remains optimistic that expanding the free meal program will help balance the budget and avoid the need to dip into reserves.
The topic came up around five and a half hours into a seven and a half hour Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 15 and appeared to deliver unexpected news.
“I wanted to make sure that I was clear. You had mentioned that any meal that students pick up now for free actually helps us to bridge that gap,” Trustee Catherine Kuo asked Hobbs, before adding that she planned to spread the word to her friends in the community.
Hobbs confirmed and said he has also been informing his neighbors.
Trustee Gabbi Blackman said she was similarly surprised.
“We got messages about ‘go pick up some breakfast or some lunch,’” Blackman said, “but I actually think that we really need to do a big campaign to explain why it’s so important."