Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras appears to have undermined a key tenet of the school board’s three-year school improvement plan, Dreams4RPS, with decisions regarding cafeteria operation and food delivery that were taken before schools reopened earlier this month.
This principle is to ensure that students have good food to eat so that they have the energy and nutrition they need to be vigilant in class.
Since the start of school, this has not been the case with parents and students describing the offerings as almost inedible. Sometimes, still frozen meals were distributed to the students. Garbage cans are often overflowing with food that students have thrown away instead of eating.
Based on documents and information obtained by Free Press, the Kamras administration deliberately did not recruit new workers to fill several vacant positions among the cafeteria staff, ensuring that there were not enough people to operate the kitchens.
The administration also did not follow school board policy requiring that a health advisory committee be involved in selecting a supplier or follow board guidelines to allow student groups to test offerings. menu of vendors competing to provide prepackaged meals.
Mr. Kamras declined to answer Free Press questions about the food debacle, as did Matthew Stanley, RPS’s director of advocacy and outreach. Mr. Stanley sent an email stating that RPS was unable to respond to Free Press inquiries in a timely manner.
The administration is now scrambling to make sure students get the food they need, with cafeteria managers required to conduct daily audits of prepackaged meals provided by Illinois-based Preferred Meals to determine whether the food is eaten or thrown away.
Many students pack brown bags or bring lunches from home, and a few schools are increasing their cafeteria kitchens to provide alternative offerings.
In a September 10 email obtained by Free Press as the food problem exploded, Kamras acknowledged a serious shortage of staff in the cafeteria and admitted that his administration had deliberately not rushed to fill the vacant positions. As he said, the hiring of replacement cafeteria staff has been “deprioritized”.
In the email, he also rejected an offer from a recruiting company that specializes in providing temporary workers to fill the shortfall until RPS can hire enough people.
As of the date of the email, RPS had 106 vacant positions among the 233 cafeteria employees and 11 vacant positions among the 45 managers, Kamras said.
He explained that his administration was avoiding options for temporary staffing due to the pandemic.
“We don’t believe that a model change – which could mean hundreds of more individuals in our schools – is the right way to go given COVID,” Kamras said.
He noted that fewer cafeteria staff were expected to be needed as an external supplier had been hired to provide prepackaged meals that were to be distributed to students through kiosks.
The Free Press has learned that in some schools, security personnel have been tasked with transporting meals to classrooms where teachers and students stay during lunch hour rather than going to cafeterias.
Breakfasts come out by kiosks, but the lack of bus drivers means some students arrive so late that they have to rush to class and can’t make time to eat a morning meal.
RPS began advertising last April for vendors to provide meals for the 2021-22 school year, but has not recruited student panels to test vendor offerings.
The Kamras administration also never involved an advisory committee that the council set up to focus on improving student health. Helping RPS to ensure students’ access to quality meals is a primary responsibility of the panel.
Liz Doerr, member of the school council of the 1st district, who defended the creation of the Advisory Council on School Health, is a member of the advisory council, with Nicole Jones, member of the 9th district school council. Ms Doerr admitted this week in a long article that she did not push the school system to work with SHAB during the vendor selection process.
She wrote that “SHAB should have been hired. It was a missed opportunity (and it demonstrates) the need to strengthen the lines of communication ”between SHAB and the administration. She didn’t explain the disconnection.
The selection of Preferred Meals as a supplier continued a relationship that began in the 2020-21 school year when the company was awarded the contract to provide prepared meals that RPS distributed to various schools and delivered by bus. school to neighborhoods.
The school board approved the current contract with Preferred Meals in August. Before the vote, board member Stephanie M. Rizzi, 5th arrondissement, asked if there had been any student taste tests, apparently without getting a specific answer.
However, the board did not verify before the vote whether the meals created by the company and delivered by RPS were actually consumed by the students and their families. The Free Press was told that parents and students often do not come to collect the meals delivered by the school bus and that at least some go to homeless shelters and other places that serve adults in the city. need rather than let them waste.
In choosing Preferred Meals, the administration rejected the option of renting cafeteria kitchens from local caterers and restaurants to provide fresh food options to students, an idea SHAB had championed.
Preferred Meals, which provides meals to school divisions in several states, defended the food it provided. Company officials noted that the contract with RPS did not specify that only cold meals should be delivered and that they often sent items that needed to be reheated.
In her statement, Ms. Doerr noted that it is difficult to hold Preferred Meals accountable because the contract that the board approved with Preferred Meals “is confusing and difficult to understand.”