The Snowline Joint Unified School Districts 2020-21 school year began on August 17, with at-home learning. With students not physically attending school, the district’s nutrition services department is facing a funding problem that may turn into a crisis if not resolved soon.
When the pandemic began, and Snowline schools closed in March, the district first operated the grab-and-go meal program by serving any student under the age of 18, regardless of where they attended school. Meals were handed out by curbside pick-up. With the start of the school year, that has now changed. Now, only Snowline students can be served meals at a Snowline school meal distribution location, and students must be verified by their school identification card. Parents can also pick up their child’s meals, but they will also need to be verified and have their kid’s student I.D card with them. This change has significantly brought down the number of lunches handed out daily, which in turn has hurt the nutrition services department budget.
The national school breakfast and lunch program ensures students can receive two meals while at school, says Toni Chaffee, the Director of Nutrition Services for the Snowline Joint Unified School District. But through a separate program called the Child and Adult Care Food Program, Snowline students are now also receiving supper when they pick up their meals at any of the district’s seven distribution locations. These locations include Baldy Mesa Elementary School, Pinon Hills Elementary School, Phelan Elementary School, Vista Verde Elementary School, Wrightwood Elementary School, Heritage School, and Serrano High School.
Adding that third meal to the curbside service took working around some rules. “Those programs are based on the fact that you actually have activities going on at your school. But being that we’re not doing a traditional school service, there’s no activities going on” explains Director Chaffee. “So, I’m handing out activities at the curbside on nutrition and health so that I’m showing that I’m trying to educate them, so that I can get approved from the state and the federal government to do that program as well.” Because of her success, other district directors have called her to ask how they can bring the supper meal to their districts.
Through a partnership with the Los Angeles food bank, Don Lee Farms, and Gold Star Foods, for the first two Thursdays of the school year families picking up student meals also received a twenty-pound box of precooked food. After receiving an e-mail about the program, she applied and was approved for two drops of approximately 1300 boxes for two weeks. “With parents out of work and people struggling a little bit, I just wanted to be able to give them that little extra food if we could do it.” The program only committed for those two deliveries, but Director Chaffee is already applying to other food programs to try to bring further assistance to Snowline families.
Since the school year began and the change was made to only serve meals to students within the district, the number of meals served per week has gone down by around 6,500 meals. Because the nutrition services department is not funded by the school district, but instead generates money by the number of meals served, when students do not show up to pick up their meals the department is hurt. “I’m losing a lot of money. I figured out yesterday I’m about 45 percent down in actual funding than I was last year.” As a career educator, Director Chaffee says she has contacts in Sacrament and on Capital Hill, so she knows this problem is already being discussed at the highest levels. But the nutrition services departments across the country need help soon, especially if the pandemic continues for an extended period. “Most districts are in the red right now. We are really lacking funding to provide these meals for our students and to be able to take care of our departments because we are self-sufficient.” In the state of California, laying off school employees is banned right now. But Director Chaffee says she has friends in other states that after 16 years have been laid off due to lack of funding in their nutrition services departments. If this is not resolved soon student’s meals may be put in jeopardy.
In Chaffee’s opinion, the reason most students are not picking up the meals is because SJUSD is such a rural community. Most schools in the district are not within walking distance for students. They’re normally either driven or bused to school. The most obvious solution to this problem would be for schools to open back up for in person learning.
The meals are handed out between 7-9 in the morning, Monday through Thursday at any of the seven distribution locations. On Thursday’s, kids are given double meals so they can have one for Friday’s.
What Director Chaffee wants parents to know about the district’s nutrition services department is that they are doing everything they can to get good nutritious meals to their children. “They’re amazing meals. We’re doing real scratch cooking” she says. “I just want them to know the quality and to try and get out here so we can help with their families.”
On Monday, August 31, the US Department of Agriculture announced the extension of the Summer Food Service Program, and the Seamless Summer Option. Both programs have been extended through at least December 31, 2020. This move allows schools to revert to allowing any child under the age of 18 to get meals at school distribution locations. While this move will help the nutrition services departments across the country, for districts like Snowline it will not be enough. SJUSD has approximately 7,300 students enrolled, so it should be distributing around 36,500 meals weekly. During the first week of school they served a little over 17,500 meals.