At an average age of 58, the kitchen equipment in many Santa Monica schools is almost old enough to collect social security and school officials have decided that early retirement might be best for everyone involved.

The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District agreed to move forward on a revision to its food and nutrition program at a June 14 board meeting, allocating money to improve Malibu HS and Samohi kitchens as well as offering more food and food purchasing options for students.

The presentation, led by Food and Nutrition Services director Richard Marchini, demonstrated a school district exploring improvement options for its students amidst challenges.

Challenges include low participation rate, some dissatisfaction with food offerings, outdated kitchen equipment (an average age of 58 years old) or non-functioning equipment, and accessibility issues such as long lines and short lunch periods, and budget concerns.

The district budgets a certain amount ($3.4 million this year) for food service based on participation rates of students from all school sites. The district receives food funding from the state program as well as meal reimbursement from the National School Lunch Program. The more students who participate and qualify for free and reduced meals, the more money the food and nutrition department receives.

Program participation is low with 2,791 lunches being eaten daily and 579 breakfasts being eaten daily in the 2016-2017 year. Enrollment for all sites is 10,488 students.

To increase participation and revenue, the program proposed many options:  freshly preparing meals at revamped Samohi and Malibu High School kitchens (an estimated $700k cost to replace kitchen equipment) to be distributed throughout the district, beginning in a pilot program; grab and go meals of freshly prepared salads, sandwiches, and yogurt parfaits; kiosk-like locations to reduce waiting times for students during lunch breaks; student-driven menus, and rebranding the program.

All of these options would include more food options for students, including vegan, gluten free, and fresh items. The district notes that although they will integrate these healthier options, they currently offer healthy food based on laws and guidelines that they follow.

Freshly prepared meals at the revamped kitchens of Samohi and Malibu HS would be a pilot program. The program would deliver precooked meals to some schools in the district before branching out to all. A timeframe for the pilot has not been finalized.

Grab and go meals and the freshly prepared food would explore local vendor options such as farmer’s markets (which the district currently does) and some foods offered would be organic, Marchini saying those options would be a case by case decision.

The kiosk-like location concept would be introduced to save students time, with staff and parents sharing stories of their students choosing between socializing with friends or eating for the day, sometimes unable to do both.

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly positive with a roomful of parents, teachers, and students taking to the podium to share their excitement, many parents sharing statistics that showed improved food choices improved school performance, a possible tool in helping the oft-discussed achievement gap.

Children even shared their disappointment with current food choices and excitement for more options, a large group of them showing off decorated paper plates with healthy options, a community marketing project for their respective schools.

“Students need to be provided with healthier options so that they’re ready for the classroom,” said little Emmy Sebers, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. “If we get healthier foods, students will know what to eat to make them stronger and taller and our minds will be prepared. If food is changed, students will be ready for class and will have healthier bodies. You should change food for healthier lives.”

Board member reaction was positive, but with some reservations concerning budget, kitchen staff development and involvement, and capacity to carry out all programs.

Board Vice President Jon Kean expressed concern with kitchens staff involvement, wanting to make sure they’d have a say in the programs. “We’re asking a lot of our staff, I’d like to see them involved instead of saying, ‘You’re not doing this.’” He also addressed budget prioritizing and taking responsibility for some shortfalls, saying having let the equipment age or get to an unusable state was “embarrassing.”

However, he expressed “liking the core” of the idea and what improved food could mean for social situations at school sites.

“There is a stigma at our sites, ‘Whos going to the cafeteria? If you do that, you’re free and reduced lunch.’ If we can get all our kids into that room to eat together, it does become social, it does become communal, we all break bread together. I think there’s a wonderful thing we could accomplish for the climate and culture of our schools if we can achieve something like that.”

No decisions were made last night as it was just a discussion item, but the District will move forward in exploring the ideas presented and fleshing them out.