The Government Making Paperwork MORE Important Than Feeding Hungry Kids!
Posted Oct 27 2009 11:47am
S.F. schools’ lunch money cut off; rules broken
Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
(10-21) 14:43 PDT SAN FRANCISCO School lunches have long been the butt of bad jokes featuring mystery meat and plastic-wrapped bean burritos, but in San Francisco, feeding more than 30,000 children every day – while following strict federal rules – is no laughing matter.
Since April, the school district has had to pony up the $1.5 million monthly cost of the lunch program for low-income students after state inspectors on a surprise visit found violations they deemed so serious and recurring that they cut off the flow of federal reimbursements.
The violations had nothing to do with the quality of food being served, but stem from the school district’s inability to follow bureaucratic rules governing the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the state.
To ensure no child goes without a lunch, the district, meanwhile, has spent more than $11 million, money it will get back once city schools show they can follow the rules – something district officials have been working on since the inspection.
While the federal rules weren’t written with picky, distracted and hungry children in mind, they are there to guarantee taxpayers only feed students whose families meet the program’s income guidelines to qualify for the program.
The decision to cut off the school lunch money was rare – it’s a harsh penalty used on maybe one district statewide in any given year and only in the most severe cases, state officials said.
“When we withhold funds, it’s because our findings are pretty egregious,” said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division. “We’re not taking away money; we’re just not going to give it until there’s integrity in their meal claims.”
The district is reimbursed $2.68 in federal funding for each low-income child who receives a free lunch; $2.28 each for students who receive a reduced-rate lunch; and 25 cents each for those who buy lunch at full price. The state chips in 22 cents per lunch. The district charges $2 for lunch for students who don’t need assistance and is not reimbursed at a rate that covers its costs. The district lost $2.8 million on lunch last year.
In San Francisco, state inspectors paid surprise visits to 12 schools between December and March, three years ahead of the normal inspection schedule because of rules violations found in 2006 and 2008. As in the previous visits, inspectors found “critical” problems in the way schools counted program-funded meals. Other problems were found as well.
One school broke a federal rule requiring the presence of an anti-discrimination poster in every cafeteria reading “And Justice for All.” Another failed to offer milk with various levels of fat content as required; the principal had pulled the nonfat chocolate milk because of sugar content.
“They want to make sure they were doing their due diligence to protect the public funds,” said Nancy Waymack, the school district’s director of policy and operations, of the inspections.
But the process is “complex and not particularly school friendly and child friendly,” she said.
For instance, each lunch is to be counted as free, reduced or paid in full. That can be accomplished using a lunch card carried by the child that indicates which lunch he or she is entitled to. Or, the accounting can be done using a check-off list as each child files by. At some schools, the children’s lunch status is preprogrammed into a computer and as the children pick up their lunch, they are required to identify themselves on a touch screen to record they’ve participated that day.
Teachers or lunchroom staff members are prohibited from handling the lunch cards or pushing the touch screens for the children. They are also not allowed to turn in a manual check-off sheet based on who they thought in advance would be taking a lunch.
In San Francisco, inspectors said school staff violated federal policies in each system.
The rules also say that lunchroom staff must see to it that a child serves him or herself at least three food items. No adult is allowed to hand a child, no matter how young, a tray of food.
Inspectors said at some San Francisco schools it went unnoticed when children took only one or two food items. That was another mark against the district.
While federal officials currently are weighing revisions to the national program, including potential adjustments to the inflexible rules, San Francisco district officials are training and reviewing current regulations with school staff.
District officials said the loss of federal funds has not been a financial strain on the district yet, but could be over a long period of time. Superintendent Carlos Garcia urged principals in an Oct. 9 letter to take the matter seriously.
“If it were not for this program, many of our students would not have food to eat,” he wrote. “Our children learn better when they are properly nourished, and we have a responsibility to make sure we keep them fed and learning.”
State inspectors likely will be invited back next month, Waymack said. Unannounced site visits are expected to occur after that, and if all goes well, the state will resume payments and cut a check for the back pay.
“If any of us were designing the system today, we would design it differently and design it more with kids in mind and hopefully fund it a little better too,” Waymack said.
This article has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.
The state inspection of San Francisco’s school lunch program included multiple violations across several areas of compliance. Below are examples from the state inspection report.
Schools must accurately identify and count every child as he or she receives a free, reduced-rate or paid lunch. Each child must hold a lunch card while going through the line or be individually identified on a checkoff sheet or computer system.
At several schools, inspectors found cases in which staff members or teachers violated policy by holding the cards for the children or failing to bring the cards to the cafeteria to give to the children. On touch screens, teachers, instead of students, were seen pushing buttons.
Children must select their own food, including a minimum of three servings each. Staff must verify the correct quantity. School staff cannot hand children – even the youngest ones – a tray of food.
At four schools, students left the line with too few items or were otherwise not monitored as having taken a complete lunch, resulting in 37 invalid lunch reimbursement claims.
Milk must be served.
At one high school, servers ran out of milk with 30 students still to serve. At a middle school, milk wasn’t delivered on an inspection day. None of those 247 meals should have been counted for reimbursement.