Superintendent Michele Lawrence acknowledged major shortcomings in the district’s food services program, including a $775,000 deficit in the cafeteria fund and meals that do not live up to the district’s ambitious food policy, at a community meeting Tuesday.
But Lawrence defended the leadership of food services director Karen Candito, arguing that the problems began before she took office this year, and said better times are ahead.
“I believe that there is a way for us to provide healthy food for kids in a cost-effective way,” she said, acknowledging that she did not yet know how to reach that goal.
Lawrence, who spoke at a meeting of the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee, a citizen group that advises the Board of Education, presented the committee with a list of 26 factors contributing to the cafeteria fund deficit.
The list included the loss of a $240,000 annual food service contract with the Emery Unified School District, the purchase of a $188,000 mobile cafeteria at Berkeley High that has gone unused, a $33,000 vacation payoff to the previous food services director, and unsatisfactory ordering and tracking procedures in some areas.
Associate Superintendent of Business Jerry Kurr said the district purchased the mobile cafeteria because it anticipated requiring freshmen to remain on campus during lunch this year. That policy has not gone into effect and Kurr said the district is considering selling the unit next year.
In order to make up this year’s cafeteria fund deficit, the district has to make a $166,000 contribution from the general fund and virtually wipe out the fund’s $847,000 reserve.
The district plans to make up next year’s deficit, in part, with a $350,000 contribution from the general fund, which will contribute to the district’s overall deficit of $2.8 million. The district also plans to reduce worker hours for a savings of over $160,000.
Stephanie Allan, a business representative for Local 39, which represents food service workers, said the reduction in hours will hinder the district’s efforts to improve food quality.
“I don’t know how you’re going to serve healthier food with less people to prepare and serve it,” she said.
The quality of district food was a hot topic at the meeting, with committee members complaining about corn dogs, sweetened cereals and other high sugar and sodium foods.
“I don’t understand what healthy means to food services,” said committee member Yolanda Huang, who has raised the issue several times at recent Board of Education meetings.
Jeanette James, field operations supervisor for food services, said the district is working to make improvements – negotiating for chocolate milk with lower sugar content and including an organic produce company in the bid for next year’s produce contract, among other measures.
Lawrence said she agreed with the committee about the need for better food.
“I’m outraged that we have Frosted Flakes and sweetened cereals,” she said. “That has to be fixed.”
Eric Weaver, committee chairman, said the group has tried to help with long-term planning but has faced continual roadblocks from food services.
“We have been totally stymied in the efforts to try to plan,” he said, noting that the group has resorted to using figures from the nearby Davis school district to develop a generic, long-term vision.
Lawrence said the district has had difficulty planning, not only in food services but in many other areas, because its data system is so faulty.
“We’ve had some serious problems in this organization,” she said.
The district is scheduled to convert to a new data system early next month.