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Every day, LGHS students flock to the cafeteria to pick up meals provided through California’s new Universal Meals Program. These meals benefit students across the state, alleviating food insecurity and combating the negative stigma around free lunch programs. However, increased participation has also sparked widespread confusion and stress on campus, underscoring the lack of necessary support for LGHS’ cafeteria system. Students should help the cafeteria staff by maintaining respectful behavior in line and promoting awareness of how the new system works. The LGHS community must also advocate for structural changes, including a kitchen redesign and more staffing, to ensure that the cafeteria can continue to serve the school community to the best of its ability.
The passing of Assembly Bill (AB) 130 in July of 2021 required schools across California to implement the Universal Meals Program by Fall 2022. Provisions of the bill ensure that all public school students receive “nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch,” regardless of socioeconomic status. Previously, income determined whether or not students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Assistant Principal Kristi Grasty stated that while the program is a “wonderful concept,” it’s also a “big undertaking” for the LGHS cafeteria staff, and “scal[ing] it up in such a quick period of time systematically poses some challenges.”
It is important to clarify how AB 130 applies at LGHS because of frequent confusion, typically about which items the lunch program compensates for. Each student receives one free breakfast, picked up before 8:20 AM, and one free lunch, picked up during either break or lunchtime, every day. Free lunches include an entree, milk, and fruit; the cafeteria must continue to charge students for “a la carte items” like chips, cookies, and soft drinks.
Pam Carlino, who has been head chef at LGSUHSD for twenty years, explained, “parents are in an uproar because everything’s supposed to be free. But everything’s not free. Everybody gets one free breakfast and one free lunch. Kids will run by a water or an Izzy or a second lunch [and] they’re charged.” Parents often see these charges on their kids’ Titan accounts — which LGSUHSD uses to manage meal plans and student fees — and ask why “they paid for lunches that are supposed to be free.” Sometimes, parents request to cancel their child’s account, which is impossible. “It’s really confusing,” Carlino expressed. To minimize disorder and unnecessary back-and-forth, students and parents must understand which items charge to their Titan accounts under the new program.
Changes to the lunch menu have also prompted complaints amongst LGHS students about portion sizes, ingredients, and discontinued items. Carlino reflected that, “kids are not happy….You know, it’s just that the kids are all complaining we need to get out of this program and go back to the old way.” In response, she emphasized, “it’s all the law. It has nothing to do with [our school] personally…your meal has to have certain components and it’s very limited…it can only have so much meat, so much grain, so much dairy.” While the cafeteria staff understands kids’ frustrations, the state enforces the same rules in every school district. It’s essential to recognize the limitations that California’s lunch program places on schools before lodging complaints against LGHS’ staff.
As part of AB 130, our school receives reimbursements based on the number of students enrolled in the program, which LGHS tracks through students’ Titan accounts. Families must sign up students for an account to ensure that LGHS delivers accurate meal reports and receives adequate reimbursements from the program. These reimbursements help pay for the cost of making the food, as well as possibly hiring more staff in the future.
The new responsibilities under the Universal Meals program “added more workload on a very small staff to begin with,” Grasty revealed. The cafeteria staff typically serves around 750 students every day, more than double the numbers of students from last year. With so few workers, staffers get up as early as 4:00 AM to start preparing meals for the day. They often work at both Saratoga and Los Gatos campuses, with Carlino stating, “I’m going back and forth between both schools. I have no managers…I just can’t get everything done.” Fortunately, the LGSUHSD Board has approved initiatives to augment cafeteria staffing and transition to granting part-time workers full-time status this year, but students can continue to advocate for even more support.
The structure of the LGHS cafeteria poses significant struggles to cafeteria efficiency as well. Gesturing to the kitchen, Carlino asserted, “This is really not big enough. We definitely need more space.” Grasty corroborated this statement, “It would be ideal if we had the extra funding to do a big remodel, [but] we don’t have that right now…that’s a dream.”
In the future, the LGHS community can advocate for a bond election to allocate money to a remodel of facilities, but for now, we can make the most of our small space by being more respectful of others in line. Grasty suggested, “It really helps [the staff] if you have your card out so they don’t have to pause and ask for your ID number. We should [also] respect people’s individual space…be mindful that everyone is waiting.” She also wants to remind students to show their appreciation for the “really nice human beings” who work so hard to ensure students are well-nourished. Donya Derakshandeh, an LGHS senior who works in the cafeteria, mentioned how “just a simple thank you when paying for your food” goes a long way.
“It’s a beautiful step that we are endeavoring to provide healthy meals for all. And with that [being] said, we all need to have patience during this time,” Grasty concluded. The Universal Meals program is undoubtedly a transformative stepping stone to student equity in cafeterias. In order to ensure that its implementation goes as smoothly as possible and to create a healthy working environment at LGHS, we must advocate for support and awareness for cafeteria staff.