[For this reason] the budget challenge facing the state is not just about increasing taxes and cutting spending to cover a deficit. It is also about achieving this goal without further damaging basic infrastructure, [like meals for low-income children in public schools.]
Editorial in La Opinión
Dec 4, 2008 -- California’s fiscal crisis is reaching public school cafeterias, which feed millions of children from low-income homes every day. As in other cases, the services most needed in hard times are those most impacted by the lack of money.
State school authorities report a significant increase in the number of children who meet the financial criteria for free and reduced-price meals at school.
In the 2007-08 school year, nearly 3.1 million children, 51% of total enrollment, received these benefits. Now this figure could rise by 4.5%. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), 600,000 breakfasts and lunches are served daily, and 73% of the student body receives free meals. The rise in the number of children who receive this benefit has forced the LAUSD to be more efficient, but also to reduce the number of dishes it offers.
The $125 million that the state reimburses annually for this purpose will run out before the end of the school year, with the risk of no longer being able to provide meals. State School Superintendent Jack O’Connell has asked the governor for an additional $31 million for the next three years to cover the need.
This situation is similar to what is happening in community colleges and universities, to name a few of the other critical venues that cannot suffer more cuts. For this reason, the budget challenge facing the state is not just about increasing taxes and cutting spending to cover a deficit. It is also about achieving this goal without further damaging basic infrastructure, like meals for low-income children in public schools.
More pupils rely on food at schools
By Susan Abram, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
December 3, 2008 -- California's public school students relied on 28 million more free or reduced-price meals this school year compared with last, a sign that the economy has made the school cafeteria the de facto kitchen table for kids whose families are struggling.
The 770.6 million meals served during the 2007-08 school year was a record, and a 4.5 percent jump from the year before. The state commonly experiences a 1 percent increase per year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Tuesday.
But the variety provided with these meals, including fruits and vegetables, leans on state money, a sore subject given the fiscal emergency declared by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday.
While the federal government provides $2.50 for every free or reduced-price meal served, the state doles out an additional 22 cents. A new law provided a bit more to districts that agree to serve food without artificial trans fats or that are heavily fried.
"The unprecedented demand for school meals is yet another example of how the economic downturn is causing many families in California to turn to schools to feed their children and stretch their grocery dollars," O'Connell said.
If lawmakers don't shore up funds for the next school year, officials will have to make King Solomon-like decisions about school lunches - offer less variety of costlier yet healthier foods or bring back cheaper alternatives such as french fries, O'Connell said.
"Our responsibility is to ensure that low-income students have access to nutritious meals, because hungry children do not learn," he said. "We cannot prepare students to succeed in the competitive world they'll face in the future unless all of their nutritional and educational needs are met today."
More than 75 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District's students rely on the subsidized meals.
But if the state continues to see a jump in meals, the LAUSD will lose $10 million toward its food program next semester, said Dennis Barrett, director of food services for the district.
School officials won't end the meal program, but the loss in funds means cutting jobs or offering less variety, Barrett said.
"Maybe, we would have to offer less food choices," he said.
The district leads the nation with its selection of foods, such as Chinese chicken salads and turkey breast and cheese sandwiches, which include less sodium and no trans fats or artificial dyes, Barrett said.
"We're going to do everything we can to do some adjustments" if the funding doesn't come through, he said.
Meanwhile, O'Connell is requesting $31.1 million to reimburse schools for the May and June claims that remain unpaid from last school year, and to pay for the anticipated higher number of meals districts will serve this year and next.