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Meals: Free for the students but not for the schools

A program to provide free school breakfast and lunch meals to all K-12 students throughout Plumas County has become a resounding success since it was widely implemented in fall 2018, according to local administrators.

Participation in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the National School Lunch Program and the companion breakfast program has expanded the existing food service offering here from 1,200 meals per day to 1,700 servings of breakfast and lunch.

With that achievement, schoolwide costs have increased both within Plumas Unified School District (PUSD), which oversees the meals program, and at Plumas Charter School (PCS) sites, a fact noticed by some PCS parents.

Charter seeks parents’ input

“This is a very positive program, we’re lucky to have it,” said PCS Executive Director Taletha Washburn, describing the experience of local schools involved with the free meals effort.

“We are grateful to participate in the program with PUSD and they have made it easy for us to be part of this,” Washburn continued. “In our case, the number of PCS students eating meals this year has increased dramatically, which is a good thing, and this has also driven the costs up.”

Washburn noted PCS had budgeted $20,000 for its share of the expense to be part of the free meals program for 2018-19, but participation is up about 55 percent from last year’s regular lunch program and up 39 percent in the number of breakfasts served.

Invoices to date reveal the PCS cost could be $45,000.

“Because this way of providing meals is new to us, this is a significant cost and we are evaluating our options to sustain the program,” she remarked. “It’s just bigger than we thought it would be. This is a wonderful program so, in the interest of being transparent, we have asked parents for input on how to sustain it.”

Washburn noted that PCS schools will either have to change their budget and move funds from other things to assure the food service needs are met — which they are willing to do — or find other workable solutions.

PCS has notified its families of the situation and reminded everyone that there is no charge to students who participate, but it’s not free to the school to be part of the program.

The PCS board of directors includes three parents, the school staff and the parent group, Washburn said.

“All of these members have been discussing the impact of the foods program and how best to create sustainability for it,” she explained. “Everyone agrees that this is a group effort.”

One approach that has arisen, at least temporarily, is to allow parents to make voluntary, much-appreciated contributions specifically designated for the meals program.

An all-families meeting in April will include the topic. Nothing has been decided at PCS yet, except to affirm commitment to the program.

“I have only heard from one parent so far, asking how they could help, and she decided to donate toward the meals program,” Washburn said. “We have no intention of scaling back. We’re feeding a lot of kids and we are absolutely going to make it work.”

Stretching reimbursement funds

The charter school isn’t alone in finding ways to manage this year’s costs of offering the free meals program.

PUSD experiences approximately $300,000 per year in unreimbursed expenses for the food service program and that’s been the case for a number of years.

Committed to the benefits of the new free meals program, the district will pay for the deficit from its general fund as it has been doing for food services previously.

When the free meals program was being planned for the 2018-19 school year, district data projected student participation to increase by approximately 20 to 25 percent.

“We didn’t know what to expect (for certain), but families are reporting how much they appreciate the convenience, cost savings and good nutrition their students are receiving,” said Lisa Cavin, PUSD’s Deputy Superintendent for Business Services. “Participation is up substantially.”

The national school lunch and breakfast program’s four-year Community Eligibility Program is mandated to be offered free of charge to all students in Plumas County and serves students in Chester, Indian Valley, Portola and Quincy.

PUSD can reapply to opt in again at the end of the four years.

PUSD contracts with Plumas Charter School making it possible for area schools within the district and at PCS sites to offer two free meals to every student each day, regardless of financial or other need and without requiring special applications or other paperwork from families.

Federal guidelines require PUSD to keep meal costs to $3.50 per lunch and $2.35 for each breakfast, or less, and the district maintains that standard while using highly nutritious and often locally sourced ingredients from Plumas County farmers, ranchers and other producers.

However, state and federal dollars reimburse the schools 72 percent of those costs, leaving PUSD and PCS to stretch that reimbursement and pay the other 28 percent for the food they need.

That comes to an average of about 82 cents per meal that PUSD and PCS must pay from their own budgets.

“This program has been quite successful, beyond anyone’s expectations,” said Amber Russell, Food Services Program Manager for the district. “We are fortunate that we were able to include all of our school sites in CEP and not just select sites. There are many other districts that are only able to offer this unique provision to one or two of their sites.”

Russell explained the 82 cents (that is unreimbursed by state-federal dollars) toward the food costs is an estimate and helps the district and charter school for budgeting purposes, though it’s only part of the picture.

The state-federal reimbursement specifically covers the cost of the food, not operating and other expenses, she explained.

The schools must also cover the cost of equipment and daily staff time to prepare the meals, among other expenses. In PCS’ case, they pay additional costs to deliver the meals to their school sites.

Free to families, not to schools

While administrators say not every single student takes advantage of the program — there are 1,850 students in PUSD schools and 348 in PCS school sites — they are welcome to participate at no charge and no student is turned away if they wish to have breakfast and/or lunch.

High schoolers have an option to receive their breakfast meal at the scheduled daily nutrition break and lunch is offered free at the usual time.

Russell, with the food service program, said recent legislation requires school districts to offer the program in a phased-in approach and PUSD is ahead of the game by offering it now.

PUSD’s Cavin agrees with Washburn of PCS that the increase in students taking advantage of the free meals program is definitely a good thing in Plumas County.

“This is something that’s really important,” Cavin said. “And it’s free to the families, but not free to schools.”

She explained that funding for the district’s unreimbursed share of costs for the meals program will continue to come out of PUSD’s general fund, as it always has.

“Of course, we are always looking for ways to improve efficiencies and increase the quality of this and every program,” Cavin said.

She added that PUSD is definitely encouraging more families to participate in the free meals offering and said the school district has received donations specifically for the food service over the years.

“No one will be asked to donate toward the meals program,” Cavin clarified, “but we do welcome any donations to the schools as a whole or to specific programs, including the food service.”

Committed to sustainability

PCS Executive Director Washburn summed up her thoughts about the value of the free meals program to her students and their families by citing a one-month snapshot from October 2018 when PCS served 2,516 free breakfasts and lunch meals.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to feed so many students,” Washburn said. “This is a very positive program and we will continue to provide this program, regardless of cost.”

She added that PCS is dedicated to stakeholder involvement and transparency in its operations.

“We want to make sure that parents understand more about how this program works for the school, the significantly increased cost the school is assuming to provide this program and how the higher cost will impact the overall budget as we strive to create internal sustainability for the program.”

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