An independent audit of the Beverly Hills Unified School District‘s problematic lunch program has revealed the extent of the challenges ahead for the school board as it tries to revamp the program.
“I have never seen a district in worse condition,” Debi Deal, the FCMAT independent auditor, told the board Wednesday evening.
BHUSD hired the educational agency, Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (), to audit the lunch program after the district lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two years serving lunch. FCMAT’s mission is to help California's educational organizations fulfill their financial and managerial responsibilities.
FCMAT auditors looked at “all issues” related to serving lunch at the five city schools over 12 days in January, Deal said. They found numerous problems, including a lack of appropriate cash management supervision, no procedural guidelines for staff, overproduction of food and high amounts of waste, and a very low participation rate at all five schools.
The low participation rate is partly because the students do not like the food. The evidence: even among those who qualify for free and reduced meals, only 43 percent take the lunch.
High prices are another deterrent. BHUSD meals are priced 23 percent higher than other comparable districts throughout the state.
“That tells me you overpriced yourselves,” Deal said.
School lunch prices range from $4 for elementary school meals to more than $6 for high school students. Participation rates ranged from just 5.7 percent of high schoolers eating school lunch to a high of 24.7 percent of Horace Mann students.
A central problem facing the lunch program, Deal said, is that there is no full-time director of food services to oversee the program. She also suggested the district limit its food choices, offer more varied menus and survey the students to see what they would like to eat.
To some board members, hiring a full-time director of food services is not a panacea.
“We have had systemic losses in our lunch program for years, even when we had a full-time director,” board president Lisa Korbatov told Deal.
Why offer school lunch at all? BHUSD is hamstrung by federal law requiring the district to serve the six percent of the student population who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Furthermore, the district cannot identify these children, making it difficult to offer just a limited lunch program. Currently students can give the cashier an account number to pay for their lunch, so it is impossible to know if that account is funded by a parent or by the district.
I complement the board for hiring FCMAT and allowing the agency to publicly admonish them for the lunch program. Board members are facing a Herculean task as they consider their options. Hiring a full-time food services director and serving better-tasting food is contradictory with the other important task of lowering lunch prices.