Chef, organic lunches OK'd for Santa Rosa French-American charter school

Goodbye, chili dogs. Bonjour, quinoa and free-range chicken.

A menu change is on the order for Santa Rosa's French-American public charter school in August after city schools officials Wednesday approved spending an additional $95,300 annually to support plans for organic meals and a communal-style dining experience for students enrolled at the institution, now finishing its first year of instruction.

The extra spending was approved on a 6-0 vote, with board member Laura Gonzalez, who appeared opposed to the program, abstaining.

The funds would support a chef and one extra food service worker, beyond the one worker the school currently has, and a culinary program that would set apart the elementary school in yet another way from all other Santa Rosa public schools, where standard cafeteria-style meals and settings are still on the menu.

The money would come initially from a $6 million nutrition services fund that supports food service at schools throughout the district. Going forward, the program's costs are expected to be covered by higher meal prices at the school.

Wednesday's approval came with a verbal promise from school backers that their foundation would pay any expenses not covered by increased lunch prices. Meals for Santa Rosa's public elementary schools now cost about $2.50 each. Lunches at the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School would jump to $4.75 each, a cost borne by parents unless a student qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Critics and several board members voiced concerns that the cost would prove too high for some households and create an unequal table across the district, where 64 percent of elementary students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"That's my fear — that we have kids that are getting something that the rest of our kids aren't, and it may not be self-sustaining," said board member Jenni Klose, who voted with the majority but joined Gonzalez in voicing concerns about socioeconomic divisions that could be created by the program.

Backers of the charter school defended the culinary upgrades, pointing to the French focus on food and its place in the school's curriculum. They said they hoped their school would develop a model program that could be rolled out districtwide.

"Our hope is that our program would be piloted to make a change, a much-needed change, in school lunch programs," said Najine Shariat, a school founder and co-president of its foundation board.

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