Free Lunches at UNI: Great Idea, Poor Execution

Students+walking+away+from+the+cafeteria%2C+enjoying+lunch.

Students walking away from the cafeteria, enjoying lunch.

Heejae Lee, Staff Writer

At UHS, free meals have been implemented since the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. Although this system has only recently made its debut, it is clear that there is a necessity for change to meet our students and staff’s developing needs. The efficiency of the cafeterias becomes questionable due to the long wait time for cafeteria users, which coincides with our staffing problem, as cafeteria faculties are working vigorously to meet increasing demands. 

The SB 364 Bill, dubbed the “Free School Meals for All” bill, was approved on September 9, 2020. Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the creator of this bill, initiated the United State’s first state-wide free meal program in California, with grants of up to $30,000 per school site. Although SB 364 authorized the first official free-meal program in the U.S., many other countries have already implemented this system. Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and India, among many others, provide reduced to free lunches for all compulsory school students, and all for good reason.

Free school meals reduce the stigma of poverty among students. While many students are already self-conscious of fitting in, there are many instances nationwide of students choosing not to take advantage of a reduced-price meal rather than becoming alienated by their peers. The free meal system also exempts the process of gaining access to reduced meals of the past entirely, which required legal steps that often prohibited families to qualify, for reasons such as not fitting an exceedingly specific income range.

A repeating complaint among many students is that although more users visit the cafeteria during lunch, the process of receiving the food has not changed at all since the past, making it so that students must wait for much longer. Falling behind for even a short instance after the lunch bell rings can force a student to wait almost 20 minutes out of a 35 minute lunch period. This prompts some students to buy their meals before school elsewhere, or simply not eating a filling meal. During lunchtime, you can easily spot the line of students stretching from the cafeteria, winding down to the front of the MPR.

The increase of cafeteria users has not only affected the students, but also our lunch staff who work to distribute the food to hungry students daily. Mr. Andrew Morrison, the supervisor of our cafeteria, explained that the workload and expectations of our cafeteria staff have increased more than ever before, stating, “We have less [staff] than before COVID.” Mr. Morrison commented, “We are trying to hire more people, but not hitting responses.” He also noted that our principal is looking into parent volunteers to help with this situation, but that becomes tricky as the commitment becomes a great responsibility for volunteers.

The demand for workers exceeds our UHS community, from the many schools in IUSD to the pizza companies delivering our most demanded item. With almost 2000 students able to step in and out of the cafeteria to receive their meals, the 200 slices of pizza that our staff prepared daily now became about 500 slices, and the pizza companies that deliver packages also experience challenges of their own in supplying them to us. 

There are a few ways to approach these concerns. Many public high schools split their lunch period into three or four blocks so that the amount of students in the cafeteria becomes manageable. For example, both Irvine High School and Mater Dei High School, who split their lunch periods into multiple cohorts to alleviate the pressure of the lu. Without changing the school schedule entirely, we could create more spots for the students to receive their food, such as the cart behind the 300’s building so that we can divert students away from the main cafeteria. With these changes, students would be able to receive their food more efficiently and be able to spend most of their lunchtime eating and socializing. It would also encourage more students to take advantage of the free meals. However, both of these ideas are based on the assumption that staff can be available for these extra hours, pointing to our staff shortage.