Legislator wants emergency aid for school meal program in budget accord

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson said Wednesday he will push to have emergency funding for maintaining school lunch programs included in the mid-year budget agreement that the governor and legislative leaders are currently negotiating.

Torlakson, D-Antioch, an expected candidate for state school chief next year, has already introduced urgency legislation that would provide $19.5 million to cover the states share of free and reduced-price meals served to low-income students statewide.

He said in an interview with Cabinet Report Wednesday that while he will still pursue the bill, he believes including the money in any upcoming budget agreement would be the fastest way to get the money to the districts some of which may run out of meal money in the coming weeks.

The cuts being faced by districts are already atrocious and leave them with very little room to maneuver, he said. Then you get this issue, which is really a health and safety question. Not to act with urgency or not to include this money in the mid-year budget agreement, I think would be devastating.

Torlakson said he has talked with the legislative staff of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, about including the money in the budget accord and expects to talk with the speaker directly about the proposal soon.

With the state facing the prospect of running out of cash sometime in February, there is some optimism that an agreement on spending cuts and tax hikes is in the offing.

Because of the fiscal crisis, the Legislature is solely focused on the budget debate and committees that otherwise might be considering the urgent matter of the school meal funding have not been meeting.

If the money is not included in the pending mid-year budget plan, it could take the Legislature weeks even months to move Torlaksons AB 95 forward.

Im going to be talking to the speaker directly about getting this included in the budget compromise, Torlakson said. It would be the most immediate way to get the money needed to the districts.

In 2007-08, the state served a record 770 million student meals and a survey of districts suggest that the 2008-09 school year will show a 12 percent increase.

California law requires school districts to provide one nutritious meal (breakfast or lunch) to every low-income student whether or not the federal and state funding is sufficient.The federal government provides between $2.17 and $2.57 for every free or reduced-price meal served, and the state provides an additional 22 cents per meal.

Recently enacted state law provides an additional 6 cents per meal on the condition that districts agree to not serve any food containing artificial trans fat or that have been deep fried, par fried, or flash fried.

Because of poor economic conditions, schools are finding more and more students qualify for the free or reduced-price meals.

Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition services at the Ontario-Montclair School District, said their cliental has jumped about 10 percent above last year.

Her district has about 24,000 K-8 students, of which 83 percent now qualify for free or reduced-price meals one of the highest ratios in California.

Her department faces a loss of expected revenue due to the states capped budget for state meal reimbursement. This loss totals $270,000 for the current school year and up to $600,000 for 2009-10 if lawmakers dont act.

Its difficult because we fight for the same money that the classroom fights for, she said. If theres not enough money for the classroom, instruction suffers. But there also needs to be enough to provide nutrition so that students are ready to learn.