RSF School surveys parents on Universal Meals

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

The Rancho Santa Fe School District recently surveyed its parents about its Universal Meal Program, finding that there is some dissatisfaction and varying levels of participation in the free, nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch they are now required to provide for all children each school day.

At the Oct. 6 school board meeting, Superintendent Donna Tripi shared results from the survey, which had 160 responses (the school has an enrollment of 581 students). Per the survey, 88% said they are not participating in the free breakfast, which includes rotating daily options of breakfast bars, cereal or muffins with fresh fruit and milk. Breakfast is served in the courtyard from 7:30 a.m. up until the bell rings.

For the free lunches, 40% of respondents said they are participating. Of those that do get the free lunches, 32% get it one day a week and 26.5% every day.

Only 5.9% said they were very satisfied with the free option, 90% were unsatisfied. Fifty-six percent said the portion sizes are too small and 70% said that variety is very important in the meals provided.

Of the respondents, 53% supported the district going with the non-reimbursement route, continuing to provide the free meal option along with 35 daily paid options from their vendor Ki’s.

Ki’s October menu for the free meals will not change for the month. It includes options like whole wheat chicken quesadillas or gluten-free burritos with cucumber and orange slices on Tuesdays and teriyaki chicken or tofu bowls with pineapple on Fridays.

Ki’s has said it is not interested in participating in a request for proposals if the district goes the state reimbursement route, meaning the district would need to find a new vendor. With the food consultant on board, President Jee Manghani said the RSF District will be able to explore the possibility to retain Ki’s as a drop-off paid lunch option like Jersey Mike’s.

In his comments, Trustee John Tree shared some frustration about the free meals.

“I personally think it’s shameful how we are handling this program,” said Tree. “I feel like we’re thinking about doing it, poking at it and then not taking it seriously. I think the administration keeps trying to actively discourage people from using it.”

Tree also objected to Tripi discounting some of the criticisms received in the survey such as that the portions are too small and that the lines were too long.

“These types of little nuances are things that tell me you guys are trying to avoid doing this program,” Tree told the staff. “This October menu is worse than you get in the military or in prison. It’s just ridiculous that we sit here and say ‘Sorry kids if you want the free meal which you hope you don’t pick because we secretly aren’t really behind the program then we’re going to give you crap on a stick for every single day of the week the same.”

Trustee Kali Kim disagreed that menu items like pesto pasta with chicken was “crap on a stick”. Tree said he was just advocating that the district provide “excellent” universal meal options, with variety within the month so it’s not the same thing every week and right-sized portions.

The state’s reimbursement rates have now increased to $5.24 for lunch and $3.15 for breakfast. The majority of the board, except for Vice President Annette Ross, supports the reimbursement route and has given the district direction to pursue that. Tripi said with a food consultant on board, they will review the program to ensure the district is in compliance—the consultant is expected to present to the board in November.

Tree expressed frustration that the district remains in a “nebulous” position between reimbursement and non-reimbursement despite board direction. Trustee Rose Rohatgi agreed with Tree’s comments given that the board has been discussing it since the spring.

“The majority of the board wants to move forward on reimbursement,” Rohatgi said. “Let’s get this done.”