Santa Barbara Unified School District mobile cafe
A Santa Barbara Unified School District mobile cafe serves “supper” Friday night at the Old Town Goleta clubhouse of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Unified School District abruptly called for the elimination of free meals for thousands of students at a rare Monday night meeting.

The proposal, contained in a 3½-page report, failed after a backlash from the public and school board members.

“We have to figure this out,” schools trustee Laura Capps said. “There’s no other option. We can’t just shut off the spigot with these kids. I know you would never do that.

“We need to have a more robust plan in front of the board that gives us faith that people aren’t going to be left in the lurch and families aren’t going to be left in the lurch.”

The board members told the district to put the proposal on ice for the remainder of the year and come back with a more thorough plan in 2020.

Meg Jette, SBUSD’s fiscal services director, unveiled the proposal during an agenda item that was designated for only 20 minutes of discussion at the Dec. 16 meeting. She said the distict last year experienced a $1.1 million deficit in its food services fund, which had to be made up through the general fund. This year the deficit is projected at $1.3 million.

Jette had proposed three scenarios for the board to approve at the meeting. She suggested cutting free breakfast to students who don’t qualify for free or reduced meals at Dos Pueblos, San Marcos and Santa Barbara high schools; Goleta Valley and La Colina junior high schools; and Washington School.

Students who do qualify for free and reduced lunch at those schools would still get free lunch and breakfast. Historically, however, those schools have also offered free breakfast to all students who wanted them, regardless of income. Serving those students breakfast in October alone cost the district about $103,000.

Michael Baker

Michael Baker, CEO of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, chats with a young Goleta club member after she received her dinner Friday night from the Santa Barbara Unified School District mobile cafe. Baker made an impassioned plea for the food services program to continue, citing its importance to low-income families. “When you get to the end of the month, it becomes tremendously important because families are out of money,” he says. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Jette also proposed increasing meal costs for 12 programs through which it serves meals outside the district. The district has contracts with vendors that serve meals to public and private schools, the homeless and seniors in Santa Maria.

The third proposal was to halve the number of mobile food cafe trucks that serve schools to four vehicles by February. The single-school Montecito Union School District and private Notre Dame School are among those served by the trucks.

All together, the three proposals would save the district as much as $801,000 next fiscal year, Jette maintained.

The rushed proposal appeared to catch everyone off guard, however.

“Twenty minutes on the agenda to try and rubber stamp this without understanding the consequences or the hardships this is going to cause to the kids that are eating?” SBUSD employee Ken Rivas asked at the meeting.

“It is apparent that there is going to have to be layoffs if this program is cut. I am asking to really think this out. It deserves more time than that.”

Michael Baker, CEO of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, spoke at the meeting and pleaded with the district not to move forward.

Last year, he said, the district served 130,000 “supper” meals that didn’t cost anything for the children who attend the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Baker said he greatly appreciated the program and the partnership his nonprofit organization has with the district, but he warned that cutting mobile cafes would have serious consequences. For many, family finances are running short at the end of the month and the mobile cafe program is an essential bridge for children.

“When you get to the end of the month, it becomes tremendously important because families are out of money,” he said.

Baker said a majority of the children who eat at the Boys & Girls Clubs are on a free and reduced lunch program.

“We’re going to stop serving them?” he asked. “It is just not something I can sit back and not doing anything about.”

Jette insisted that the supper program was not under threat, but acknowledged that adults who get lunch at the cafe would have to pay $6 instead of $4.

She also said the district might save money by dropping off the food at the Boys & Girls Clubs, where staff could serve it from club kitchens.

“We can deliver,” Jette said. “That will cut down on our labor costs.”

Still, the proposals fell flat with the board.

“I just don’t know if we had a sufficient amount of time to look into this,” trustee Wendy Sims-Moten said.

Trustee Kate Ford agreed that district administrators did not provide enough notice or explanation for the change.

“I appreciate having a cursory sense of what this is all about, but I feel like this is a greater opportunity to have a greater plan, a more robust plan,” she said. “This is a huge deficit and this is like a couple of pages of a plan.”

She added that the district helped create the problem.

“We share part of the responsibility, so we’ve got to figure it out,” Ford said.

Outgoing Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said nothing during the discussion. The district was poised to send letters to families and vendors the next day had the board approved the blueprint.

Capps said the issue is bigger than just cutting the budget. She said Santa Barbara has the second-highest poverty rate in Santa Barbara County, and California has the highest rate of povery in the country.

“We have a real problem on our hands,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.