‘Meatless Mondays’ get cut from high school menus

Oxnard Union High School District ends Vegetarian Day
By Hector Gonzalez

They called it “Meatless Mondays.”

But the all-vegetarian lunch menu offered once a week at Oxnard Union High School District campuses since 2015 was never a big hit with students, officials said.

“Vegetarian Day was the lowest participation day” among students eating in OUSHD cafeterias, Stephanie Gillenberg, nutrition services director, told school board members at a recent meeting.

Now, “Meatless Mondays,” which this past school year was offered on Fridays, is out.

School board members decided June 26 to eliminate the no-meat menu for the next school year as part of cost-saving measures aimed at reining in OUHSD’s more than $4-million annual nutrition services budget.

The changes are designed to increase the number of students who buy lunch at school and close a $2-million deficit in the nutrition budget.

“We have room for more kids to start eating in our cafeterias,” said Jeff Baarstad, an operations consultant for the district.

Federal reimbursements covering lunches served to low-income students amounted to about $4 million last year, the biggest chunk of revenue in the nutrition services budget. OUHSD received an additional $332,000 in meals reimbursements from the state, and it raked in another $553,000 last year in cash sales.

In all, OUHSD’s food program generated about $5 million in revenue last year, but expenditures amounted to $7 million, leaving $2 million in red ink.

One problem, Gillenberg said, is that while 61 percent of OUHSD students qualify for free meals, only about half of those students eat in the cafeteria every day.

On top of that, she said, just 30 percent of students eligible for reduced-price meals eat at school daily.

Skipped breakfasts cost the district as much as $1.71 per meal, while lunches not eaten cost OUHSD as much as $3.24 in reimbursements for each meal.

Including those students who pay in cash for their meals, only 26 percent of OUHSD’s 17,270 students eat breakfast in the cafeteria daily, and just 34 percent eat lunch there every day.

Over the past two years, OUHSD food services employees have tried surveying students and creating food focus groups to learn what kids like and what they don’t, but that effort hasn’t resulted in more students eating in the cafeteria, Gillenberg said.

She recommended the district continue to align its menus with students’ preferences.

“I think it’s important to provide students with a menu they will eat,” she said.

Board members also agreed that OUHSD should take a close look at labor and food costs in the nutrition program, which account for 49 percent and 42 percent of the budget, respectively.

One recommendation by Gillenberg and approved by the school board is to eliminate salad bars, which are offered at all OUHSD high schools. Setting up the salad bars is labor intensive, she said.

“It takes a lot of time to set up, and it takes two workers,” she said.

Getting rid of the salad bar will allow the district to move those workers to checkout stands. That will speed up the process, decrease lunch lines and give students more time to eat, she said.

Like the meatless menu, salad bars haven’t gone over too well among students, with only about 10 percent of cafeteria diners opting to partake, Gillenberg said.

OUHSD won’t get rid of greens altogether, however. Cafeterias will still offer bagged salads, she said.

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