RSF School board weighs how to meet state’s new free breakfast, lunch requirements

The R. Roger Rowe School campus.
(Karen Billing)

Starting in the 2022-23 school year, California will become the first state in the country to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program, providing free breakfast and lunch for all children every school day. Per the new law passed last year, all students may request breakfast and lunch at no charge, regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

The Rancho Santa Fe School District faces some challenges in implementing this new requirement—unlike larger neighboring school districts, they do not have a district kitchen or meal service staff and equipment.

For the record:

6:04 a.m. June 1, 2022The article incorrectly stated that reimbursement from the state would be $10,000 to $20,000. That amount would be the delta between the cost of the food and reimbursement.

Per the law, schools without cafeterias are not exempt.

Currently, Rancho Santa Fe’s school lunch service is provided by Ki’s in Cardiff and about 180 students participate a day. Historically, Rancho Santa Fe has had few children that qualify for free and reduced meals, Superintendent Donna Tripi said. Ki’s has always had extra meals on hand for those students who forgot or needed a meal that day.

The district has two options on how to proceed, applying for reimbursement from the state for the meals or going the more flexible non-reimbursement route. At its May 26 meeting, the school board considered what the most sustainable option might be.

With the non-reimbursement option, the school would likely continue to use its lunch vendor Ki’s at a cost of $56,000-$110,000 a school year with an estimated 50 to 125 students participating in the free option.

This option would require no impact on staff, no paperwork, no health permit and some flexibility in meals provided.

“The downside is we are going to have to pay for lunches and we don’t know what the demand will be,” said Allison Oppeltz, the district’s director of finance.

RSF School Board President Jee Manghani said he thinks 125 students was a low estimate—if something is offered for free, he thinks more students would want to partake, maybe closer to 500 kids a day.

With the state reimbursement option, the district would need to acquire a health permit and must become an approved School Food Authority, an extensive three to four month application process. They would need to follow National School Lunch Program requirements, which includes following meal patterns and serving milk with each meal.

The majority of the costs would be covered by the state. Meal reimbursement rates are expected to be released in July and Oppeltz, estimates a delta of $10,000 to $20,000 between the cost of the food and reimbursement.

The district will need to go out to bid for the lunch provider and, in a preliminary search, they have found only Ki’s would provide servers and they may need to hire nutrition staffers. There would also be some equipment costs, such as food warmers and milk refrigerators. If they go the reimbursement route it is also recommended that they hire a food service consultant, a cost of about $15,000 to $20,000, to assist with the health permit, maximize state reimbursement options, train staff and recommend a sustainable plan.

The first year the district can expect an extensive state audit of the program, Oppeltz said, followed by an audit approximately every three years.

In their discussions, the board had questions about wasted food, liability concerns regarding food allergies and whether they would be cutting out choice—in order to provide a free and equitable meal option, there might no longer be the same options for students ordering lunch each day (currently Ki’s offers 25 different selections each day).

The board was split on which way to go, with the majority leaning toward non-reimbursement and not going into the food service business. Trustee John Tree said he believed the district should try to go it alone without reimbursement to start: “If it becomes unwieldy, then go with reimbursement.”

Tree was also concerned about building up the program for reimbursement and then seeing funding get cut by the state if there is a budget shortage.

Manghani said he was strongly in favor of the reimbursement option, as was Trustee Rosemarie Rohatgi.

“I feel like we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure we spend money properly,” she said. “If there’s a way for reimbursement—and I know there’s lots of hurdles—I feel like we should do it.”

Manghani remarked that the Universal Meal Plan seems to be another example of a “one size fits all” idea from the state: “If they are forcing us to do something, they should pay for it.”

Oppeltz didn’t have the answers for many board questions as a lot of information from the state is pending on this new program. With so many unknowns, the board decided to wait to make a decision until closer to the Aug. 15 start of the 2022-23 school year.