School district continues offering free meals for all students

Cathy Olsen, Director of Food Service, shows off the salad bar at Waggoner Elementary to Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry at a tour in February 2020. (Crystal Apilado/Winters Express)

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Food Service Director Cathy Olsen presented to the Winters Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees a Nutritional Services update on how Winters will be participating in the California Universal Meals Plan (Meals for All), a plan to provide breakfast and lunch to all Winters students regardless of whether free or reduced lunch eligibility, as well as some of the challenges the Nutritional Services team is working to alleviate. 

Olsen provided some background on the topic of free lunch in California and what changes it will bring to Winters. She noted “The Universal Meals Program is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program” and that California state law mandates that schools with high poverty rates are required to participate in federal meal provisioning.

“A school is considered high poverty if their identified student percentage (ISP) is over 40 percent, meaning 40 percent of enrolled students are determined eligible for free or reduced-price meals,” Olsen said, explaining that this ISP rate determines how much the federal government reimburses the district for meals provided.

“Winters has qualified for several years, however, our ISP is very low, therefore the reimbursement rate for reduced price and paid meals has not been economically sustainable,” Olsen said, but that “under the Universal Meals Program, the state provides the additional funds to ensure LEAs (local educational agencies, in this case, Winters JUSD) receive the same reimbursement for all meal categories.”

Olsen also said that the Universal Meals Program has also given nutritional services access to Kitchen Infrastructure and Training (KIT) Funds that help fund, “kitchen infrastructure upgrades, equipment, and food service staff training, as well as to provide funds for additional support and staff work related to the implementation of uniform universal meals.” Importantly, Olsen noted, “these funds are not subject to all of the regulations under the National School Lunch Plan” and thus will be easier for nutritional services to access. 

The need for increased funding and support from the state, Olsen explained, comes from the increase in average meals per day over the last few years in Winters — putting strain on the resources and time of Winters JUSD Nutritional Services. Comparing average meals per day from 2019 to 2022, Olsen showed that in December 2019 when 972 meals were served a day versus December 2022 which saw 1,355 meals served per day. This increase has put a strain on Nutritional Services, with Olsen noting they have a staff of eight who are purchasing, preparing, refrigerating, and storing food for an additional 2,000 meals per week, as well as on the infrastructure for storing and making these meals. 

Other department services
Expounding on the other services Nutritional Services provide, Olsen described food service team efforts in keeping daily production records, providing wellness and nutrition education to students, maintaining equipment and keeping food safe, and planning menus.

Following Olsen’s presentation, the Board Trustees asked a few follow-up questions. 

Trustee Kristin Trott asked Olsen if the state and federal funding would go towards staffing in addition to food, but Olsen said of the funding “it’s not really meant for staffing other than staff training” rather the funding “is really meant to improve facilities and equipment” though they are allowed to ask for different usages of the money. 

Trustee Sterling Davis asked if the shift to the Universal Meal Plan has increased the need for staffing. Olsen answered “definitely” explaining “we have been running behind…we have hired staff to accommodate that, but we do need (more) staff.” Olsen noted instances of staff members extending their workdays by arriving and leaving late to keep up with services. 

Trustee Everado Zaragoza inquired with Olsen what she thought would be most helpful in alleviating the difficulties the food service team is having with storage. Olsen said dry storage and cold storage, and a larger work area, would be helpful. Olsen shared an example of when food services had access to extra storage space during the pandemic at Waggoner Elementary, as well as Shirley Rominger Intermediate School currently not having the space to prepare all its fruits and vegetables on-site and requiring additional supplies from Waggoner.

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