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Questionable cafeteria food

Elsie Lee Szeto
Monday July 01, 2002

To the Editor: 

As the former manager of Child Nutrition Services from 1990 to 2001, I need to disagree with Superintendent Michele Lawrence’s assessment of why the school district's food service program is failing operationally and financially. 

First of all, basic finance theories were not followed. The department knew back in the summer of 2001 that the contract with Emery Unified School District was not renewed. The parents of the Child Nutrition Advisory Committee did not want food services to contract meals out to any district because these parents wanted to focus on feeding Berkeley Unified School District students first. Unfortunately, not every child was eating at BUSD. Any business person running an operation knows that if your revenues are down, you need to decrease expenses. Was that done at BUSD Food Services Department? Apparently not according to the accounting department and food services staff. 

Just ask some accountants there and they can tell you the real facts about the department. The ex-controller, Katrina Nelson and accountant, Bill Louie have repeatedly told the director, Karen Candito, in November 2001 that if she does not curtail the department's operational expenses and increase revenues, she will run into a deficit of more than half a million dollars. This did not deter the director to take much action. One of her cellular phone expenses last fall was over $600. My husband who is the controller of a major high tech company indicates the sales people in his company are given a limit of $250 which includes calls around the world to Asia and Europe where the manufacturing plants are located. How does a director who basically is just an office administrator accumulate a cellular phone bill three times the normal rate of a sales person? The catering program was eliminated by Karen which did bring in a set revenues. Meal participation is down since the fall of 2001 and nothing was done to decrease expenses for revenues lost. 

The superintendent states that the problems began before Karen became the director last year. If the department had a reserve of about $ 850,000 how could a department be poorly run with problems? Definitely not financially. If anyone checks the financial records of the food services department for the last five years, the food services cafeteria fund never infringed upon the general fund. Food services funds brought in enough revenues to pay for all the expenses which is the reason why the department had a healthy reserve to plan for rainier times. Obviously having a reserve of more than $800,000 could not take into account the dubious leadership with weak financial skills. Many people who have been in the district will tell you that the food services was in financial and operational problems back in 1990. It even had to borrow $100,000 to continue operating the summer program. That amount was paid back to the general fund in three years and able to build a reserve of a million dollars a few years ago. How could one quantify that as problems to food services? Superintendent Lawrence claims better times are ahead. How will she guarantee to provide healthy food for kids in a cost effective way if the general fund had to provide $166,000 for school year 2001-2002 which does not include the reserve being spent and provide another contribution of $350,000 for next school year? Is this the next educational food service scandal to come out from the recent ones we heard in the business world of Enron and WorldCom fiasco? 

Stay tuned for next year to see if better times are ahead for food services. 


Elsie Lee Szeto