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Taking a bite out of our kids' lunch

August 28, 2007|L.J. Williamson | L.J. Williamson is the parent of an L.A. Unified second-grader.

The Los Angeles Unified School District receives about $2.85 a child a day from the state and federal governments to provide breakfast and lunch to students. Of that amount, according to the nonprofit group California Food Policy Advocates, or CFPA, about $2 must be spent on milk, supplies, salaries and benefits, leaving about 85 cents for the food on your child's Styrofoam tray. Given this paltry budget, it seems astounding that our children are fed at all, yet L.A. Unified's food service manages to serve nearly half a million meals each school day, and it does so within or exceeding U.S. Agriculture Department nutrition guidelines.

If this feat seems miraculous -- and I defy anyone else to make an even moderately healthy meal for that amount -- try doing it with even less.

That's the kind of loaves-and-fishes territory that the food service might soon find itself in if the school board passes an initiative today expanding healthcare for cafeteria workers.

Part-time food service employees are seeking the same health benefits -- including coverage for their families -- that their full-time counterparts enjoy. Extending these benefits to cafeteria staff who currently work only three hours a day would cost an estimated $40 million a year, according to school board calculations.

Nowhere in the private sector do three-hour-a-day employees expect to be eligible for full family benefits; nowhere but in the surreal world of L.A. Unified would anyone have the nerve to ask for them.

This is fat that the food service's too-lean budget simply doesn't have. If health benefits were extended to these part-time workers, the CFPA estimates it would mean that the per-plate meal budget would be reduced from 85 cents to 49 cents. Making healthy food available for that amount would take a miracle of biblical proportions. So we'd be improving the healthcare of nearly 2,000 part-time workers at the expense of the 500,000 children who eat in public school cafeterias every day.

Already, the food service has had to make nutritional sacrifices: After the Legislature's elimination of the California Fresh Start Program, there is no longer fresh fruit on breakfast trays every morning.

Proponents of the new initiative argue that extending full health benefits to employees is a social justice issue, and they have a point; everyone should have access to quality healthcare. But the fact remains that someone has to pay for it, and the backers have not specifically described how they intend to do so. Luis Sanchez, chief of staff for school board President Monica Garcia, simply told The Times that "the money is found when it needs to get found."

Beyond this vague comment, supporters have only offered speculation -- they predict that revenue might increase if students were served by a more stable and better-trained workforce and that costs of work-related injury claims might be lowered among newly covered employees who previously filed such claims to gain access to medical services.

Yet it seems more logical to conclude that a student's decision whether or not to eat at the school cafeteria is based on the quality of the food, not on the quality of the employees, and that a more proven approach to reducing work-related injuries is to improve workplace safety.

It's not as if there are no options for part-time workers to obtain health benefits. At present, there are more than 100 openings for full-time cafeteria positions waiting to be filled, the CFPA reports.

The millions of dollars it would take to extend health benefits to part-time workers would be better spent improving the quality and healthfulness of the food we feed our children. As well-intentioned as this proposal might sound, it's important to bear in mind that a school cafeteria's job is not to address social justice for adults; its job is to serve quality food to students.

The idea that the food service should prioritize the needs of part-time workers over the needs of the district's children is tough to swallow.

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