After months of receiving complaints from parents about the quality of the school lunch program, the Napa school board took up the contentious issue without saying what kinds of changes might come about.
The board held a special one-hour meeting on Thursday that was attended by more than 50 parents and others, during which the trustees acknowledged the complaints about the poor quality of food being served to students.
At the same time, some trustees said overhauling the Napa Valley Unified School District’s nutrition program could be fiscally challenging if it dumped Sodexo, the longtime contractor running things, and ran the lunch program in-house, known as self-operating.
NVUSD is one of the few districts in California still relying on a third-party to provide school meals, according to statistics compiled by the California Department of Education and presented at the meeting by district officials.
Currently, only 52 school systems pay a company for this service, while more than 700 districts run some kind of self-operating program.
This statistic was one of several important facts during the discussion that fueled calls by parents, such as Katie Aaron, for ending the 35-year relationship between the district and Sodexo, a multinational corporation headquartered in France.
“We must eat some humble pie and admit we have done wrong,” said Aaron, a former teacher at Vintage High School whose children attend Vichy Elementary School and Silverado Middle School.
“Say goodbye to corporate America in our lunch room,” she added, “and hello to fresh, local, sustainable and independently run lunch room.”
District officials informed the school board that more students have stopped participating in the meals program in recent years, which, in turn, has put the program in the red financially.
Seven years ago, nearly 70 percent of district students ate school meals, based on data from the district’s business office. That percentage has plummeted since then to 53 percent in the current school year.
Fewer students buying lunch has meant fewer dollars to pay for the program that has seen expenses outpace revenues in each of the last three fiscal years, according to NVUSD.
Parent Laura Miller, who has two children attending Napa Valley Language Academy, criticized the district and board for taking a “hands-off approach” regarding the food service program and relying on Sodexo, which is “costing you millions of dollars a year.”
“That is why you’re in the red,” said Miller.
Assistant Superintendent Wade Roach, who oversees food services, informed the board that the meals program has not ended in the red, thanks to the “Sodexo guarantee,” referring to a clause in the district’s contract that requires the company to pay NVUSD if revenues and expenses don’t balance on their own.
While overall participation in the food program has declined, the rate of low-income students getting free or reduced-cost school lunch has been steadily going up.
Nearly 50 percent of all district students qualify for and take advantage of this benefit in a district whose population is majority Hispanic.
Some Hispanic parents have said it is especially unfair for the district to serve poor-quality food to kids who have to eat it, or else go hungry.
Miller, who is Hispanic, admitted she had a difficult time containing her emotions when she addressed the school board.
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“Excuse me in advance if I seem upset,” said Miller. “I’m very upset.”
Another Hispanic parent, Erika Cisneros Servin, spoke softly in her broken English, but nevertheless captured the attention of the board.
“My English is not good,” said Servin, whose children attend Bel Aire Elementary School. “But I’m here because my daughter all the time say”— she paused trying to find the words — “the food is disgusting.”
Servin said she regularly volunteers at Bel Aire and has witnessed the food being served and the children’s reaction to it.
“The vegetable is fine, the fruit is fine,” she said. “But the really cooked food is very, very bad.”
Servin added that kids naturally love pizza and hamburgers, but not the versions served by NVUSD.
“Kids at school say ‘Ewww’” about the food, according to Servin. “It is very sad.”
Some members of the school board admitted they have had their own first-hand experience with their kids telling them about the bad food.
Trustee Helen Busby has three children in NVUSD schools, and “two of mine flat out refuse to buy lunch,” she said.
“I understand where parents are coming from,” said Busby, “and there needs to be change.”
Trustee Thomas Kensok said he was “not completely sure of the advantages of Sodexo.”
“Perhaps it is something we can do independently,” he said, while qualifying that having the district become self-operating could be “a difficult undertaking.”
Board President Robb Felder said improving the food being served to kids “is a priority to board.”
But he tempered the calls for switching to a self-operating system, saying it was a “management model” and not a guarantee for healthy food.
Kensok recommended visiting other Bay Area school districts that self-operate.
Following the meeting, Superintendent Patrick Sweeney met with many of the parents. He said he is willing to take a field trip with some of them to nearby districts and see how well their do-it-yourself school meals program is working.
The district is working on a three-year strategic plan for nutrition that calls for implementing changes that would boost student participation in school lunches by 5 percent annually over the next two years.
But the district and school board have yet to decide how that goal will be reached.