In response to a recent state report that reviewed how schools diverted student meal funds for other needs, Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) introduced Senate Bill 302, The School Lunch Protection Act.
The report, titled “Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds,” was created by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes and gave a detailed revelation of how nearly $200 million was stolen from school lunch programs designed for low-income students.
The case studies involved Los Angeles Unified, a district which continually misappropriated cafeteria funds; Oxnard Union High School District, whose meal counts went uncounted for three consecutive years; Santa Ana Unified, a program which created $16 million in surplus; and San Diego Unified, which resulted in false accounting and double-billing.
Scott Soiseth, director of Child Nutrition for Turlock Unified School District, is no stranger to hearing news such as this after working 20 years in the industry.
“Even in the program and food services, I have heard many appalling things. This bill will clean up some things from the education codes, and that will be nice,” Soiseth said. “I fully support this bill.”
As for Turlock Unified, Soiseth is not worried about its standings, and has already implemented most of the legislative decisions.
"We have a great relationship with the financial department; we talk about these things and make sure we don’t spend money improperly,” Soiseth said.
The California Department of Education monitors subsidized meal programs. The department supported the report and the publicized wrongdoings of school districts in the state.
“It is unacceptable that children from low-income families are being taken advantage of by those tasked with providing them an education,” said Cannella. “The purpose of a school lunch program is to provide them the same opportunity for a quality education as every other child in California. I cannot believe that a school district would literally take food from the mouths of children.”
The legislation endorses nine recommendations provided in the report. One of which determined that the California Department of Education should provide an analysis of the food services staffing needs and appeal for sufficient funding to provide enough employees to perform any oversight responsibilities.
Schools were also asked to keep financial records within the last five years and prepare their expenses electronically to be brought up at a later date. All cafeteria fund charges in the past should not be changed after a fiscal year has ended.
The bill calls for repeals of the Education Code that currently conflict with federal regulations, such as EC Section 38102, which allows for cafeteria equipment accounts — something the USDA does not permit federal funds to be used for — and allows school districts to conceal money. Another repeal in the legislation is EC Section 38092, which permits cafeteria fund revenue to be shared with student bodies.
“This bill will probably change before we see the final thing. As it is written now, I like what I see. I just think that it has to be condensed and something that everyone can interpret easily,” said Soiseth. “They need to make it real concise on what is acceptable and what is not.”