Sharing space on a compostable food tray with crisp pineapple chunks, chilled honeydew slices, and cucumber coins sprinkled with paprika, the recent Friday night fare at Adams Elementary School showcased a formidable centerpiece of chili-style nachos topped with grated cheddar and (optional) rough-chopped jalapeños. As always, kids and disabled adults ate for free and parents paid $4 per plate, with no restrictions on where they lived or went to school or their socioeconomic status.
“That’s the thrill of using federal dollars in this way,” said Nancy Weiss, director of Food Services at Santa Barbara Unified School District. “There’s very little control we have over where our tax dollars go. When I see an opportunity to use federal dollars to feed kids — not just at school, but in the evenings and summer, too — and to employ hardworking folks in our community, that’s the thrill of a win-win.”
For every free plate served, the district is reimbursed $3.23 through the National School Lunch Program. Since each plate costs the district an average of $1.15 to fill with scratch-cooked, mostly organic, and mostly locally grown food, Weiss ladles the gravy back into Food Services, which now has 105 full-time employees with benefits, up from about 60 mostly part-time employees when she took over in 2008 and started phasing out frozen foodstuffs and prepackaged lunches.
The Supper Club has also expanded since its inception two years ago at Franklin Elementary and La Cumbre Junior High. As of this year, free dinner for kids can be found Monday-Friday at four additional locations scattered around the district: Adams and Harding elementary schools and Boys & Girls Club locations on both sides of town. Weiss said the Supper Club serves upward of 5,000 meals each week, explaining, “And it’s the same wonderful food we’re serving to kids for breakfast and lunch every day at school.” Supper Club hours run 4:30-6 p.m., a bit later as days get longer.
Weiss’s next big “dream and goal,” she said, is to establish a full-blown farm on 12 acres owned by the district in the Hidden Valley neighborhood. It’s got hillsides for avocado and citrus, flatlands prime for row crops, and room for livestock. The idea is to use the land to partially supply Food Services and to teach kids hands-on about farming and animal husbandry. Weiss is planning a presentation for the district’s board of education before the end of the school year.