Eating for free at Santa Barbara’s Supper Club

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Everyone is welcome at Santa Barbara’s Supper Club, which offers free dinner to kids every night of the week. There are no restrictions based on where you live, where you go to school or your socioeconomic status. Kids 18 or younger and disabled adults eat for free. Parents pay $4 per plate.

(Listen below as Katie Hershfelt of Cultivate Events  chats with Nancy Weiss, director of Food Services at Santa Barbara Unified School District about “Supper Club” at the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Market.)

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SBUSD Food Services director Nancy Weiss at the Tuesday market. Photo: Kathryn Barnes
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Shaping fresh bread at Santa Barbara High School. Photo: SBUSD

The Supper Club began two years ago at Franklin Elementary and La Cumbre Junior High. This year, the SBUSD expanded its program to include Adams Elementary School on Las Positas Rd., Harding Elementary School in Santa Barbara’s Westside, and two Boys & Girls Club locations. They’ll be adding McKinley and Cleveland Elementary Schools in early April.

The program not only feeds hungry mouths, but creates an income stream for the food services department. For every free plate served, the district is reimbursed $3.23 through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program.

“The more mouths we feed, the more money we make,” said Weiss. “The more money we make, the more able we are to purchase better food and employ people from the community so they can cook and serve it.”

The department now has 10 full-service production kitchens and a couple Mobile Cafes, which are food trucks that serve food at various places in the community, including the Boys & Girls Club. They serve up grilled cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers, hot dogs and Mexican food, among other dishes, trying to use as many local and organic ingredients as possible.Capture8

“It’s a slow and arduous process, to translate the box cutter and frozen food into whole food. You need the infrastructure,” said Weiss, who attributes the decimation of school kitchens to the rise of fast food culture in the 1970s. Many districts are no longer set up to do fresh cooking.

Since she took over in 2008, Weiss has been working to phase out frozen and prepackaged food. She now has 105 full-time employees with benefits, up from about 60 mostly part-time employees eight years ago.

“I would suggest that food services directors who want to operate in a similar vein reach out to their hospitals and other larger establishments in their communities and ask for start up money, so they can slowly build a kitchen and start cooking,” she said.