State law forces cafeteria to provide free meals for all students in 2022-2023 school year

April 9, 2022 — by Lynn Dai
Photo by Lynn Dai
Meals will be slightly altered to fit federal nutrition standards, but the new policy will have no direct monetary impact on the district

Beginning next fall, California’s Universal Meals Program will require all public school districts and charter schools to provide free meals for all students. The program mandates a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for all students each school day — and includes schools like Saratoga that have traditionally offered very few free lunches.

In addition, cafeteria meals will be slightly adjusted to fit federal nutrition standards, which require a minimum of one cup each of milk, fruit and vegetables and two cups each of grains and meats or meat alternates. To pay for the lunches, the cafeteria will also start receiving reimbursement for all free meals from the state and federal government.


Impact on students and staff

Unlike in the past, students will automatically get  free meals, regardless of whether they qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Non-program foods, like à la cartes and snacks from vending machines, must still be purchased. 

The Los Gatos Saratoga Union School District (LGSUHSD) cafeteria head Pam Carlino estimates that more students will begin getting lunches. As a result, food service lines will be longer. 

While the cafeteria isn’t sure what they will do to address this issue, the CDE provided suggestions to ensure that students have adequate sitting time, some of which include adding a grab-and-go section.


Changes to the cafeteria

The school will continue its partnership with the Country House Kitchen Company, a lunch program that allows for nutritious food to be made from scratch on a tight budget. 

Senior Derek Hsu, the ASB president, said he was “pleasantly surprised” with the menu options when he and other leadership students joined the administration and the board for a tasting.

“The food tasting is significantly better [than the food I bought in freshman and sophomore year], and if the district does provide those options next year students should be happy,” he said.

Senior Nandini Desai, the ASB Clubs-Commissioner, gave a similar review. Desai said she is “very jealous of the delicious food that’s most likely going to be served in our cafeteria next year,” and took some of the food offered at the tasting to-go.

Carlino, who has been working at the district since 2002, said the menu choices will likely decrease.

“Everybody’s going to work differently because we’re going to be preparing a lot more, but the quality and nutrition of the food will remain about the same because we’re still making everything from scratch,” she said. 

According to Carlino, principal Greg Louie found through his experience working as the principal of Santa Teresa High that students often throw away the vegetable option. He suggested a system to diminish food waste: While students will be presented with both options of a fruit and vegetable, they will have the option of solely choosing fruit.

Even with Louie’s proposed action and additional reimbursement from the state and federal governments, Carlino said the cafeterias will be working to break even and even make minimal profit by selling non-program foods, which will continue to be offered next year.

“Making a profit from school meals is really hard,” Carlino said. “We don’t want to overcharge, so it’s very hard to break even or short profit. We’re just focusing on nutritionally feeding the kids and having them be well-balanced.”  


Reimbursement: criteria and amount

To receive reimbursement from the state and federal government for all free meals provided, the school will be going back to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP), two federally assisted meal programs that the school pulled out of in the 2002-2003 school year, according to Carlino. Both are designed to fight hunger and obesity by ensuring that school meals meet federal nutrition standards and free or reduced-price meals will be offered to students who are eligible: Families with incomes between 130% and 185% or at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, respectively.

On the week of April 4, a new member of Country House, Colleen Malone, will help cafeteria staff fill out necessary paperwork for the NSLP and SBP program applications. The school will still need to collect free and reduced-price meal applications next year.

Very few LGSUHSD students qualify for free and reduced-price meals — one of the reasons the school had pulled out of the two programs in 2002. Carlino estimates that five students at SHS and 40 students at Los Gatos High currently qualify for the program. In contrast, an average of 80% to 90% of the school populations in the San Jose Unified School District qualify for the program, according to Carlino. 

Although she is unsure what the reimbursement rate for the 2022-2023 school year will be, the average federal reimbursement rate in the last four years was $0.33 per paid meal served by student eligibility type and an additional average state meal reimbursement of $3.15 per paid meal, provided by the universal lunch program.


Adjustment of free lunch policies from Fall 2021

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Saratoga High’s feeder school Redwood and other elementary schools in the Saratoga Union School District started providing free meals for all students because of their continual enrollment in NSLP and SBP. In September 2021, principal Greg Louie sent an email to all SHS students and staff addressing why SHS was not mandated to provide a free meal for all students; at the time, sufficient state funding allocations for the universal free meals initiative had not been confirmed, so the district did not need to reapply for NSLP and SBP to seek reimbursement. However, on March 10, the California Department of Education announced that sufficient funding to provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program had been established. Consequently, LGSUHSD decided to reapply for NSLP and SBP to receive reimbursement benefits.

Even so, the district has always been committed to ensuring that students who need breakfast and lunch can get them “without any obstacles,” Louie said in the email.

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