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SOUTH BAY: SUHSD families call for action to fix overcrowded cafeterias

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Posted at 5:02 PM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-25 22:05:30-04

CHULA VISTA (KGTV) -- After years of a growing demand for cafeteria lunches at South Bay middle and high schools, frustrated parents say the lunchrooms have become overcrowded.

Some parents say the problem was predictable. The proliferation of housing developments and road congestion surrounding eastern Chula Vista schools were strong signals that campuses would be impacted. Others say the district’s multi-million dollar budget shortfall is to blame.

However, while parents and students struggle to navigate the crowds during lunch, district officials say the current situation is routine early in the school year.

“As students become more comfortable or reacquainted with the campus, class schedules, and learn to prioritize lunch, the flow of the meal service will improve,” says Manny Rubio, Sweetwater Union High School District spokesperson.

That’s not so, say families at Otay Ranch High, Eastlake middle and high schools, and Rancho Del Rey. The problem has gotten worse over the years, according to these families.

"Yes my kids never get to eat at Eastlake High they always come home with headaches not enough time to eat and by the time they make it thru the line theres no choices of food,” one parent told 10News on Facebook.

Some hope to land a fourth-period class near the cafeteria to get to the lunch line quicker.

"My son mentioned that to mom yesterday. I was a bit skeptical so I downloaded the daily schedule for ELM [Eastlake Middle School]. How the ---- do they expect kids to get from their class, wait in line for food, and eat in 30 minutes?"

Another parent said the overcrowding had left her students with few to no meal choices.

“If your child shows up a few minutes late they're not going to get any food. My high schooler and middle schooler always brought their own food because of this,” said another parent.

Rubio says that he hears the public's concerns but insists the current situation inside the lunchrooms and at various points of sale is only temporary.

“At all of our schools we aim for about a 1.5-2 minute wait time. At most of our schools we see lines cleared within 10-15 mins – meaning that after that time there are no lines and wait time is less than 1 minute,” Rubio says.

Given those figures -- plus factoring in the time it takes to walk to and from the cafeteria -- a student would have roughly have 5-10 minutes to eat, in a worst-case scenario. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for adequate time to eat.

“My high school graduate never had enough time to get a school meal. We had to send him food for him to eat because of the lines and wait times,” said one parent.

Waiting it out is a risky strategy, according to some parents and students.

“At Rancho del Rey Middle they run out of food while kids are still in line. We've been bringing lunch for a few years now, for my peace of mind,” said one mom.

DISTRICT: FINANCIAL SCANDAL A NON-FACTOR

Some parents have speculated that the district's inability to properly tackle the problem is due to a financial scandal that came to light last year. They argue the district has reduced the issue of crowded lunchrooms to a low priority.

Currently, SUHSD is working to climb out of a $78 million debt and is facing a state audit for possible fraud.

“There aren’t enough resources at the schools for the number of students they have going there! This needs to be corrected!,” one parent said.

Rubio says the district’s financial shortfall has nothing to do with the perceived lunchtime problem, and that schools have the resources to ensure they are meeting student needs.

SUHSD has routinely overspent its tax-supported Government funding to operate its food services, according to Ed-Data records. The district has spent nearly $5 million more than it was granted between 2011-2018.

By comparison, San Diego Unified School District, the county’s largest school district, received a total of $317.8M in funding and spent $313.1M.

SUHSD’s most significant expenditure was recorded during the 2017-2018 fiscal year when the district spent $13.2M of the $11.9M it was granted for its Cafeteria Special Revenue Fund, according to Ed-Data.

Rubio says the district is equally vulnerable to the rising costs in the food service industry, which includes an increase in vendor, menu item, and transportation costs.

“We are constantly trying to negotiate lower prices for items, but overall we, like most others, have seen costs go up,” Rubio says.

Data on three other San Diego County school districts -- La Mesa-Spring Valley, Fallbrook Union High, San Diego Unified -- show they either underspent or stayed within $40,000 of their cafeteria funding between 2013-18.

SPIKE IN FREE OR REDUCED LUNCH ENROLLMENT

Rubio says another factor causing longer lunch lines during the first 10 days of school is that the district allows any and all students to sample the cafeteria to decide on their meal routines and time to fill out applications for Free-Reduced meal programs. He says SUHSD may be the only district that provides this opportunity.

“The first days of school is not a good measure [of lunch line efficiency at the campuses],” Rubio says. “Student population levels and demand at the cafeteria have remained constant.”

Data from the last five years support Rubio’s assertion that enrollment levels at the district have remained mostly flat.

But data published by the California Department of Education show that more families are relying on school meals.

A SUHSD Ed-Data report shows that enrollment for free or reduced lunch spiked 20% from 20,097 students in 2013 to 24,347 in 2018.

CALLS TO FIX OVERCROWDING

In a Facebook post, parents offered various solutions, such as increasing the number of serving lines and stations, seating capacity, or adding more staff in the cafeteria.

Others want a more extended lunch hour or permission to eat in class.

A former student told 10News that, “Many teachers do not permit students to eat in class. I used to live off of pop tarts and granola bars for lunch because there was no way to heat food, and many times my sack lunch spoiled by lunchtime."

Rubio says that there is a handful of teachers that discourage eating in class, such as those in science labs or areas that may be unsafe. But he says the district is urging teachers to consider facilitating time and space for students to finish their meals.

“The only thing I could see that made a difference BUT still did not solve the problem was having STAGGERED lunch times, like in some Elementary Schools, that at least helped,” said Elaine Saunders.

The district has worked to make lines move faster with the addition of ready-made meals and menu specific lines, according to Rubio.

“If a student wants pizza, they have a specific line, if they want a salad, there’s a specific line, etc.,” says Rubio.

“We started opening BBQ stations at several of our schools where students can get a freshly grilled protein item,” Rubio noted. “At several schools, such as EastLake Middle this actually had a very positive impact on not only number of meals served, but even financially we were in the positive at that school.”

Rubio says the district is open to all ideas and welcomes student and community input.

10News will check in with SUHSD in a few weeks to see if lunch lines improve or if the district implements any new systems to alleviate concerns of the students and their families.


MORE: Q&A WITH MANNY RUBIO, Director, Grants and Communications at Sweetwater Union High School District

Q: SUHSD has routinely overspent its tax-supported Government funding to operate its food services. How has the cost risen if enrollment levels haven't changed?

MR: Costs have risen for our district just as they have in the entire food services world – increased vendor costs, increased menu items costs, and even costs related to trucking and transportation that have translated into higher food costs. We are constantly trying to negotiate lower prices for items, but overall we, like most others, have seen costs go up.

Q: Is anyone tracking overcrowding at the lunch lines? Is there a crowd control plan in place?

MR: We are absolutely tracking lunch lines. Our staff at the school sites manages and controls student lines and ensures that everyone who wants a meal or a menu item can get one.

Q: Is there a target wait time for lunch lines at your campus?

MR: At all of our schools we aim for about a 1.5-2 minute wait time. At most of our schools we see lines cleared within 10-15 mins – meaning that after that time there are no lines and wait time is less than 1 minute.

Q: Are there any plans being developed given the feedback from the public about their “adequate time to eat” concerns?

MR: We’ve seen and heard these concerns. As I mentioned in the previous question, usually within 10-15 minutes lines are cleared. If a student does have to wait for a longer time or does not get a meal until the end of the lunch period, they are allowed to either sit and eat the meal in a designated area and they escorted to class (without consequence), or they are allowed to take their meal to the classroom. This information came directly from schools such as EastLake Middle and Rancho Del Rey Middle, schools that I know you reached out to. I was also told that when a student is not able to get a meal and staff is informed, we will take a meal to the student’s classroom. Again, we try to meet the needs of all students.

Q: You talked about innovation at the cafeterias. Can you list three items on lunchroom innovation recently implemented? Were these projects funded through the Govt. cafeteria fund?

MR: There are several innovative things we’ve done over the last several years:

  • About 90% of our menu items are “grab-and-go” items such as salads, wraps, etc. that can be taken quickly and move the lines faster
  • We are moving towards menu-specific lines – so if a student wants pizza, they have a specific line, if they want a salad, there’s a specific line, etc.
  • We are moving towards menu-specific lines – so if a student wants pizza, they have a specific line, if they want a salad, there’s a specific line, etc.
  • Finally, we are constantly working with students directly to bring new items to the menus. We do student taste tests and even have them involved in menu development with our staff