Richard Hartog/California Watch Cafeteria worker Sophia Villareal sets up apples and carrots for students before the lunch period.
Toothless. Ineffective. Bureaucratic.
That’s how some school food reformers have described the state’s oversight of the school lunch program.
California Watch found that about 12 percent of school districts and charter schools have slipped through the cracks and not received a state review in the past five years, as required. And many districts that fail to meet federal nutritional standards are slapped on the wrist.
State officials acknowledge the lapse in reviews and say they’re underfunded and shortstaffed.
“We try to do as many as we can,” said Suzanna Nye, chief monitor of the state’s Child Nutrition Programs. “Unfortunately, we can't get them all done.”
Many reviewers have retired, and hiring freezes and stagnant pay rates have made recruitment difficult. Nye said her staff prioritizes districts with past violations and complaints.
Part of the challenge in holding schools accountable is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soft approach, which focuses on providing technical assistance for nutritional problems, not penalizing violators.
“We’re talking about feeding kids in need,” said USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee. “The last thing we want to do is take overly drastic steps that would ultimately hurt the kids.”
Nye said it’s difficult to withhold money from schools for nutritional shortcomings because it requires documenting a district’s refusal to follow the rules. She says the state has withheld funds from only two or three districts in the past five years for failing to meet nutritional standards.
Critics say the lenient approach has contributed to the huge variation in the quality of meals offered around the state.
“The oversight is horrendous,” said David Binkle, deputy director of food services at the Los Angeles Unified School District. “They tell you months in advance when they’re coming. So if a school district wanted to look good, they could say, ‘This is what we’re going to serve when they come.’ ”
State officials say it’s hard to game the system because districts typically establish their menus and set up food purchases months in advance. Sandip Kaur, who oversees the state’s administration of the school lunch program, says regulators are doing their best to manage a complex system.
Kaur has a staff of about 200 employees to administer the lunch program, in addition to 10 other federal and state nutrition programs. In total, the programs received about $1.6 billion in federal revenue last year. The funding is based on the number of participants in the programs, so in tough economic times when more students qualify for aid, the state receives more funding. The administrative costs for the Nutrition Services Division total about $22 million.
“When you do the math, our administrative cost is less than 2 percent,” said Kaur, who runs the divisionfor the state Department of Education.
New USDA regulations took effect this week. They come with an infusion of funding for the lunch program and increased emphasis on nutrition. The state is hiring more nutritionists to shift to a three-year review cycle for schools in 2013. It is investing $12 million over the next two years to train schools on the new regulations and boost compliance.
Some child advocates say it’s crucial that schools act now, before health problems worsen.
“If we fail to address this in the schools and these kids end up with diabetes or other diet-related diseases, it’s going to be very expensive to treat over a lifetime,” said Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that promotes sustainability in schools. “We’re going to have to pick up the tab, and it’s going to be a huge one.”