Persnickety rules, heavy-handed penalties

The Chronicle has done a really wonderful job getting to the back story behind the state’s decision last spring to withhold $1.5 million a month in reimbursements to SFUSD’s school lunch program for failure to follow required rules for participating in the program.

These rules, set by the USDA, are arcane, persnickety, and (as we have found out) non-negotiable. For example:

Teachers or lunchroom staff members are prohibited from handling the lunch cards or pushing the touch screens for the children. They are also not allowed to turn in a manual check-off sheet based on who they thought in advance would be taking a lunch.

In San Francisco, inspectors said school staff violated federal policies in each system.

The rules also say that lunchroom staff must see to it that a child serves him or herself at least three food items. No adult is allowed to hand a child, no matter how young, a tray of food.

Inspectors said at some San Francisco schools it went unnoticed when children took only one or two food items. That was another mark against the district.

Are you kidding me? At most schools, there are only a few adults staffing the cafeteria line. They’re supposed to make sure every child takes three items but not hand them the food? Oh, yes. The USDA (and the California Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division, which enforces the USDA regulation) is deadly serious. So serious that last April they decided their findings were “egregious” enough to justify withholding $1.5 million a month in funds we would normally be reimbursed for serving our students free- and reduced-price meals. In case you weren’t keeping track, the amount withheld will top $10 million as of this month.

It should be said that the problems are with training and compliance at the school sites, not with the nutrition program administrators, and the penalties have nothing to do with the quality of the food. A commenter on one blog said something along the lines of “if people can’t follow the rules, they should be fired.” OK, let’s just fire the principals – who in the course of  a day are responsible for student safety and discipline, their school budgets, reams of paperwork that must be submitted to the central office, overseeing their teaching staffs and acting as instructional leaders, meeting with parents, oh, and making sure the bus isn’t late and that parents aren’t blocking driveways in the neighborhood . . . but shame on them if they don’t notice that children only took two out of the required three items in the lunch line!

But improve we must, and improve we will. Principals have gone through required training and school staffs are urged to familiarize themselves with the rules and make sure they follow them to the letter from here on out. Bottom line: the USDA gets to make the rules and they get to make us follow them. It’s strange, because with $2.68 to spend on each lunch (after overhead and labor, only about a dollar goes to the actual cost of the food) I don’t really see freeloaders breaking down the doors to get a free lunch they aren’t entitled to. But that’s the ultimate intent of the persnickety regulations: to make sure we aren’t giving away food to children  who could pay for it.

If you think this is unfair (and a ridiculous waste of our time and money), I urge you to make your feelings known to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Our Federal representatives are the people with the power to help USDA see that perhaps these rules should make more sense and be easier for beleaguered schools to follow.

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