Lunch menus at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) campuses have been limited and unpredictable lately due to shortages of certain items and lack of staff, according to Director of Food and Nutrition Services Richard Marchini.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to get shorted until it shows up on our loading dock,” he said. “ I feel bad for the kids because there’s only a handful of things we can actually put on the menu that we know we will actually get.”
He said this has left him and his staff to go to different grocery stores and vendors on a regular basis to fill in the gaps.
“We kind of run around to the stores and see what we can source and hopefully we’re able to get something of similar quality to what we would normally serve,” Marchini said. “But it’s not always available, we can’t always get the same grapes or tomatoes or hamburgers, but we kind of try to find something as close as possible.”
The volume of food the District needs to serve students creates additional challenges.
“You go to Restaurant Depot, and you really can’t say, ‘hey I need 80 cases of hamburgers,” he said. “The guy or girl will look at you like you’re nuts.”
The issue is further worsened by the fact that the District’s Food and Nutrition Services department has been short by about seven staff members since the pandemic, despite the number of lunches they serve on a daily basis having nearly doubled due to a new Universal Free Lunch program.
Marchini said they are in the process of conducting interviews and background checks and plan to hire six to seven people in the coming weeks. In the meantime, he said the staff they do have are distributed across the district.
“We’ve been able to staff each site at about 75%,” he said, “So that would normally take away one person from either cashiering or serving so it would reduce the speed that we can get them through.”
As a result of the lack of staff, average lunch wait times for students have increased from approximately five to ten minutes pre-pandemic to now about ten to 15 minutes. Marchini presented this information to the SMMUSD Board of Education at their Feb 2 meeting. Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein raised a concern that these wait times significantly detract from student’s lunch.
“If the kids are waiting ten to 15 minutes in line, what does that mean for the time that they have to actually then consume their food at the high school,” he asked. “Because I think as members of the Board that’s where we’re getting the most concern from parents and students.”
Marchini acknowledged that the wait times have been cutting into students’ lunchtime but said hiring more staff will help address this and added that they have plans to add a barbeque station outside at Samohi to provide more choice and shorten lines.
He said once the department is fully staffed he hopes to cook more items from scratch.
“Right now the only thing we’ve been able to do is our pasta sauces, we make all of those from scratch at Samohi,” he said. “Eventually we’re hoping to be able to make pizza, all of our taco meats… and even vegetarian items, so hopefully once we get more staff we can do more and send it out to all the sites, but right now we’re kind of limited as to what we can do.”