The V.I. public school system has already used up most of its funding to buy food for school lunches and needs another $4.6 million quickly to allow it to buy enough food to finish out the school year, department officials said during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
"We are now in the second quarter of the fiscal year, and the St. Thomas/St. John District has depleted 86 percent of their budget, and the St. Croix District has depleted 61 percent of their budget. By mid-February they will have depleted the commodity on hand and will not have the necessary funds to purchase more food," St. Thomas/St. John Superintendent of School Dionne Wells-Hedrington testified to the Committee on Education and Workforce Development. She said the shortage arose because over the past three years the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented changes and new regulations to the School Lunch Program. The program’s main source of funds comes from student participation and federal entitlements through the USDA, she said.
According to Wells-Hedrington and the Education Department, there has been a drastic reduction in participation due to “Nutritionally Balanced” initiatives that were put in place in 2012, causing the program to make less money on meals served. The rules require milk to be available, along with five different vegetables in any given week.
"Substitutions are no longer allowed in the vegetable sub-groups and fruits can no longer be used to replace a shortage in vegetables," Wells-Hedrington said. “If all components are not available in the correct proportions, the meal will not be reimbursed.”
Food prices have also gone up, as much as 27 percent for the most frequently purchased items, she said.
"In order for the School Food Authority to continue to provide this service they will need funds to operate for the remainder of the school year," she said. St. Thomas and St. John need $2.5 million and St. Croix needs $2.2 million she said.
Sen. Jean Forde asked Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum how the shortfall happened, what was being done to prevent it happening again and if the school system would be able to make it to the end of the year.
McCollum said the system was "not likely" to be able to get to the end of the year.
"The biggest issue has been management," she said. They have had difficulty getting good people to stay in place, overseeing the program, in part because it is difficult and there is not enough funding, she said.
Milk ran out at one point, which she said was due to "not timely ordering and also not having the funds."
Since then, they have planned orders better and sent out two orders recently, McCollum said.
"A lot of it was about people not being accountable and some of it was funding," she said.
But she said the department has made improvements, including hiring two new people to manage food service.
"We are operating differently and putting new people in places that need this attention,” McCollum said. “We have had to target areas in the department and made some significant changes in management, so that I think it will not be functioning as it has in the past number of years."
Forde asked what the Legislature can do and when it has to happen.
Deputy Commissioner Debra Gottlieb said the system needs a $4.6 million appropriation to cover the cost.
"We would need the appropriation in January, and we are in January now, and available the first week of February," Gottlieb said.