In a county where one in five children is considered food insecure, the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) bit off more than it could chew on its mission to feed the county’s hungry. Now with a $1.3 million food services deficit, the district is still grappling with the best way to mitigate the financial and hunger crises — and stakeholders are protesting.
“As nonprofits, we certainly understand belt-tightening budget problems; we want to work cooperatively with SBUSD to help solve their problem and ours,” said Pat Keelean, CEO of the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County, which until recently contracted with the district’s food services program for its senior nutrition and Head Start childcare program.
“But they have abruptly pulled the rug out from underneath us,” Keelean continued. “They are preventing us from helping thousands of county children and seniors who depend on this one meal a day. We need time and consideration to work this out. The SBUSD Business Services office is giving neither one.”
Former Food Services director Nancy Weiss spurred the district’s food revolution a little more than a decade ago and continued to expand it until her retirement in January. Weiss brought made-from-scratch free meals to both SBUSD and other district students, as well as partnerships with nonprofits and other stakeholders all over the county to the district’s Food Services program.
The costs were not calculated correctly, however, so the $1.3 million comes out of the district’s general fund, which funds academic programs and resources. In December 2019, Meg Jetté, the assistant superintendent of the district’s Business Services, announced the district would have to reset the Food Services department so that its budget was viable for the long-term.
“We need to focus on our [SBUSD] kids,” Jetté said. “We lose money on every meal at Isla Vista Youth Project, and the money is coming out of the general fund and takes away from educational resources in our district. Why is S.B. Unified expected to be the one to solve hunger in the county?”
Jetté met with each of the nonprofit stakeholders individually in attempts to renegotiate new contracts. Many of the negotiations were unaffordable for the stakeholders, who grew accustomed to the low cost-per-meal rates, so they were forced to allow the contracts to expire at the end of this fiscal year — June 30.
“I had a meeting with [Jetté], and we did not end up agreeing,” said Lori Lander Goodman, executive director of Isla Vista Youth Project. “She proposed a 64 percent increase in cost per meal, which just isn’t feasible. SBUSD has been visionary in addressing food insecurity, and they shouldn’t have to carry that weight alone, but what they are doing to the nonprofits is not the way to go.”
Goodman’s organization serves about 300 students between the after-school program and the childcare program. Keelean’s organization, the Community Action Commission (CAC), was also unable to negotiate an affordable price for its after-school program Head Start. She was able to negotiate a new contract for the senior nutrition program, which serves 158,000 meals every year — or so she thought.
“[Jetté] originally wanted the meal price to go up from $4.75 to $7 per meal, which wasn’t possible,” Keelan said. “But then we agreed she would keep the meal rate the same for the rest of the year through December 2020 at our meeting on January 16. When I attended the February 11 board meeting, I was shocked to hear her say the district isn’t working with CAC at all after July.”
Keelean described the quick switch as a crisis for her organization and said it will be a “tall order” to find a new vendor in time. The CAC entered into a contract with the district on January 1, 2019, after closing all of its own kitchens and transitioning its own staff out for the district’s to take advantage of SBUSD’s “awesome model that already exists.”
Jetté said that Keelean and the other nonprofits are mistaken. Jetté emphasized that it would be unaffordable to allow any of the nonprofits to keep their same rate through the end of December 2020, and in their meetings, she meant the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30. No paperwork was signed during the negotiations, which ended with verbal agreements.
The Isla Vista Youth Project, the Community Action Commission, and other stakeholders, including the Storyteller Children’s Center, Food Bank of Santa Barbara, UCSB Children’s Center, United Boys & Girls Club, Friendship Center, Notre Dame School, and St. Raphael School, will attend the Tuesday, March 10, school board meeting to plead with the board members to keep their contracts.
Though the topic is not on the agenda, they will speak at public comment. The topic will officially be on the agenda March 17.