With students at home in front of computers, tablets and smartphones for distance learning, Tracy Unified School District’s Food Services Department is struggling to find anyone to feed.
The director of food services, Brandy Campbell, said the number of students getting meals at 16 local schools had dropped by about 90% from an average year.
“They’re just not coming to campus, and so the kiddos that would normally eat with us, they’re not able to get to us, probably for various reasons,” she said. “So we’re trying to get the word out that we’re still here, we’re still providing meals.”
As soon as the school year began with distance learning on Aug. 11, food service employees went back to work preparing grab-and-go meals for curbside pickup. But unlike in the summertime, when sack lunches were given out to any kid who asked for one, students have to buy their lunches now.
“That is the most significant and challenging difference,” Campbell said. “We’re operating under the normal national school lunch program, which we collect meal applications and charge the student according to the eligibility status — free, reduced price or full pay.”
Switching to a paid lunch served curbside presents some technological challenges. Computers have to be wheeled outside for record-keeping. The district sent home student IDs so each student can present an ID and scan the barcode to pay for a meal from a prepaid account.
In preparing distance-learning schedules, TUSD kept an hour open for lunch between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Curbside pickup at each campus is from 11:30 to noon. But getting there and back home again isn’t always easy.
“Not a lot of families are able to do it,” Campbell said. “I’m getting a lot of calls about a lot of parents are working, so they aren’t able to leave work, go get their kids, grab their kids, take them to school, pick up their lunch, take them back home, and then make it back to work.”
A complicating factor is that each student must be there in person to get a meal, according to federal regulations. Waivers may be available under certain circumstances, Campbell said, but only on a case-by-case basis.
The result is that about 10% of the usual number of students are buying lunch each school day.
“We’re normally serving about 6,000 lunches a day and about 2,000 breakfasts a day, and currently we’re down to serving approximately 600 breakfasts and lunches a day,” Campbell said.
As those numbers fall, so does the revenue supporting the food services program.
The TUSD Food Services Department usually pays for itself and has an ample reserve based on a healthy demand for meals. Now, with so little money coming in, the department will likely be forced to turn to the district’s general education fund for support.
“In a few short months, unfortunately, the cafeteria fund won’t be able to be self-sustaining. We are expected to be a self-sustaining fund requiring no assistance from the general fund,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately due to the pandemic, we are looking at a situation in which we will go into the red and will have to encroach on the general fund at some point.”
In October 2019, a typical month, TUSD Food Services received payments from the USDA of about $450,000 to reimburse the cost of providing free and reduced-price meals to students whose families qualified. Projecting the present demand forward, Campbell expects to receive no more than $70,000 for the same time this year. But payroll costs are the same as always.
“If we’re running at 10% revenue, the expense side of the equation doesn’t change,” she said.
Going into this unusual school year, no one was sure how many students would pick up meals. For the first week, the staff planned for about 100 at each school.
“After day one, it was like 10 or 15 meals at each site, so we just start to adjust and we just start to look at trends,” Campbell said, “and then we make sure we have enough for how many people usually come and then have a little padding to make sure we don’t run out.”
At Tracy High School, for example, the staff is now prepping 20 meals a day and serving 10. Central School is one of the most active sites and serves about 60 meals a day.
“It’s very sad when I say these numbers out loud,” Campbell said.
The district has tried sending text messages and emails, scheduling automated calls, and hanging signs to remind families that meals are still being served.
Although they’re packed for grab-and-go pickup, the meals still follow national guidelines for nutrition. Lunches have a hot main dish, such as fish sticks, chicken nuggets or garlic cheese bread, along with fruit, vegetables and milk. A typical breakfast includes a breakfast-style grain, fruit, milk and juice.
For pandemic-related safety reasons, cash is not accepted at the pickup line. Parents have the option to prepay for meals online or at the school office. Full price is $4 for lunch, with breakfast for the next day thrown in.
Of the meals being served, 94% are going to students whose families qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.
“We’re definitely filling a need that’s there because they are using us,” Campbell said. “We feel good that we’re there for these kids. We’re happy to still be sort of a presence in their life, because in regular times, they need us at that time too. We just know that there are so many more out there that aren’t able to come out and get the meals for various reasons.”
If parents have questions about the school meal plan, they can call TUSD’s central food service office at 830-3255 or look up information at www.tracy.k12.ca.us/departments/food-services.