Cuts to Oakland Schools' Free Dinner Program Felt by Thousands of Students

 (U.S. Department of Education)

Updated 11:30 a.m. Friday. 

Cuts to Oakland Unified high school sports have riled up district parents and raised legal questions, but the elimination of a dinner program that serves low-income kids has gotten far less attention.

The cuts to the dinner program impact at least 3,000 students, according to program staff, while the sports cuts initially affected about 500 students.

"They constantly say they’re not trying to hurt the kids, but we’re talking about 3,000 kids," supper program supervisor Gwen Taylor says. "You just took 3,000 meals."

The program has grown to serve about 30 schools since it started six years ago. The meals are there for students who stay after school until 6 p.m. Sometimes the meal is a bag lunch with a cold sandwich, but Taylor says typically it's a hot dinner, such as spaghetti or a hamburger, along with a vegetable or salad and milk.

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Board members approved the supper program cut in June to save the district $1.4 million, part of a broader effort to trim $5.8 million from the 2018-2019 budget before it was approved.

At the time, the district's new chief business officer, Marcus Battle, told board members that cuts were necessary to balance the budget and meet the state reserve requirement.

Community advocates had pushed to keep the cuts away from classrooms. So when the district's proposal to reduce school site budgets by $10 to $15 per student was rejected in June, it was seen by some advocates as a victory.

But the board went ahead and approved a $500,000 cut to the Oakland Athletic League budget and the elimination of the supper program. Some sports that were cut have been reinstated due to last-minute donations from parents and the Oakland Raiders. So far, no one has stepped forward to save the supper program.

A district official says Oakland Unified is working with outside partners to try to restart the program.

"I don’t know how much people processed at the time," says Angelica Jongco, an attorney with Public Advocates, who works with parents. "When you talk about cuts to a department, it’s not always clear what that will look like. It becomes more concrete when they land."

OUSD spokesman John Sasaki says the district's in a tough place. "The unfortunate thing is that we have to make cuts," he says. "We do supply tens of millions of breakfasts and lunches to our students every year. As a full-service community school district we would love to be able to provide our students everything that they need, but the reality is our financial circumstances don’t allow us to do that."

Some parents who are just learning about the cuts to the dinner program are vowing to stop them. A petition to bring back the evening meals  has over 300 signatures.

At Martin Luther King Jr./Lafayette Elementary School, principal Roma Groves-Waters found out the program was gone just before school started. "We were shocked," she says.

Groves-Waters says more than 200 of her students are impacted. Over 90 percent of them are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

"We understand there have to be cuts," she says. "But in this particular area in West Oakland, our children and families rely on that dinner program."

She says she's heard from many parents who are upset. "I said there's nothing I can do -- we will give them a snack," Groves-Waters says. "That's the best we can do until we raise funds."

Parent Starkisha Jones is new to the school and she learned about the cut at the after-school program orientation.

"It would have helped," she says of the dinner program. "My financial situation is not really good."

Taylor says she has received multiple requests for information about the program from district finance staff, but hasn't gotten any clear information about what's going on.

"It’s been so hush-hush," Taylor added. "It’s kind of like under the carpet. Nobody has any clarity on what we do from here."

Taylor said 15 employees work for the program, cooking and serving food. They won't lose their jobs, she said, but she expects them to lose their benefits if their hours are cut.

"Most of them were part-time employees before doing supper," she says. "They’ll go back to part time."

Taylor does not expect to lose her own job. Instead she says it's likely she'd fill another supervisory post.

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This story has been updated to include a comment from the district.

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