Four months after public schools reopened after being interrupted by hurricanes, an Education official said the School Lunch Program has improved.
More than 10,000 students are receiving hot meals daily, compared to the days right after Hurricanes Irma and Maria when the daily fare came in a box.
But one lawmaker has questioned how far the lunch program has come in light of an audit report released by the Office of the Virgin Islands Inspector General.
The report, entitled “Audit of the Department of Education’s Claims and Reimbursement Procedures for the School Lunch Program,” looked into lost federal funding and unresolved compliance issues.
Territory wide, 10,860 students currently receive school lunches, Education spokeswoman Keva Muller said.
Auditors working in the office of Inspector General Steven Van Beverhoudt released the report Sept. 8, two days after the passage of Irma; three days after the aborted start of the 2017-2018 school year. In the Jan. 12 transmittal letter written to Gov. Kenneth Mapp and Senate President Myron Jackson, Van Beverhoudt said the second report was published, highlighting different aspects of the program.
“We’re talking about two different things. The first one talked about inventory controls, the warehouses and controls at the warehouses. The second dealt with the food and whether meals served and offered complied with USDA nutrition and portion requirements,” Van Beverhoudt said.
The audit looked for internal controls to make sure school meals met USDA guidelines; for accurate reporting of meal claims submitted for reimbursement.
It also sought evidence that Education set standards, making sure USDA guidelines were observed when seeking reimbursements. The report also wanted proof that Education officials were working to bring in the maximum level of federal funding for the school lunch program.
The last measure was found falling short by $1.7 million dollars.
But prominent among the findings in the Sept. 8 report was the failure to follow federal guidelines for portion size and meal presentation.
Images included in the report showed processed fruits mingled with savory entrees which, auditors said, led many students to throw their meals away.
Food was also served cold or in an smaller portion size.
Others, like Sen. Jean Forde, said he wanted to see school food become more appealing. In the past Forde said he recruited local chefs to visit schools and work with cafeteria staff. Those chefs, he said, entered school kitchens and using items on hand created meals that were greeted with student’s enthusiasm.
It was all in the presentation, Forde said.
Kitchen workers also enjoyed the visit and the demonstrations, but as he spoke with them, the Education committee chairman spotted limitations.
“I know some of the kitchen workers were overwhelmed. They don’t have enough equipment,” he said.
In response to the second audit, the committee chair said the findings left him disappointed but not surprised.
“There was nothing to be surprised about in the audit report, as they describe problems and issues that the Committee on Education has been harping on since I took office in 2015,“ he said.
Both Forde and Muller said they had sampled school food recently. Muller said she had her last school lunch at the end of a student achievement program at the Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School.
“It was good,” she said.
But the Education spokeswoman added it was an enhanced meal for a special occasion, served to all students that day.
Legislative aide Rudy Krigger Jr. had a lukewarm reflection on his last school lunch. His meal, he said, was “edible.”
At the end of the report, the IG said it appeared the shortcomings were addressed, but how those reforms played out was yet to be seen.
Recommendations included establishing policies and procedures for planning school lunch menus. They also called on Education officials to make sure school kitchens had proper utensils to ensure portion size.
“We consider these recommendations to be resolved but not yet implemented,” he said. The outcome would depend on how Education executed the 2017-2018 action plan described in its response to the audit.
The task was made more difficult by the two catastrophic storms, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, at the start of the school year. Cold box lunches were served as public school classes resumed in October.
The School Lunch Program warehouse in Sub Base, St. Thomas, was destroyed after Irma. Hot meals resumed once refrigerated trailers arrived and lost inventory was replaced by USDA.
“We were waiting on USDA to replenish the food that was lost. That’s why we were giving them box lunches,” Muller said.