Bringing lunch money to school is becoming a distant memory for Diamond Bar High School students, who now have access to three free meals per day.
After the pandemic revealed the dependence students have on school lunches, California passed the first universal free school meal program in the United States, allowing all Californian students to direct their focus on learning instead of how they will get their next meal. While before, access to a free meal could only be obtained through applications, now students can easily take free meals without fear of the stigma or shame that sometimes comes with it.
However, even with the implementation of the free meal program, the number of DBHS students taking meals has remained at about 1,500, with daily fluctuation of about 100 to 200 said Yenny Ong, the supervisor of nutrition staff.
“Right now we are not having a lot of participation from the kids,” Ong said. “We need to see if the kids want what we serve.”
Because of a lack of full participation from the student body, the school nutrition program is receiving less funding to provide meals. Not to mention, with fewer students eating the free meals, the kitchen staff can’t accurately gauge which meals students prefer. As the school year goes on, Ong hopes to improve the menu, removing unpopular meals and remaking meals that students are more likely to eat.
Since the free lunch program and COVID-19 precautions are in their infancy, the nutrition staff has been open to suggestions from both parents and students. Parent’s concerns over COVID-19 exposure through meals have led to individual packaging of student meals.
In the kitchen, nutrition workers aim to provide three healthy meals a day一breakfast, brunch, lunch一that accommodate students with dietary restrictions. However, due to a decrease from 30 to 22 staff and an increase in precaution due to COVID, they have become more limited in food options compared to when lunches were paid for.
“Now you have to take [the school meal] no matter what it is,” said Isabella Ross, a sophomore at DBHS.
Though with fewer choices, lunch lines are faster than before, close to the target of a maximum three seconds wait to receive a meal.
Some students felt that the quality of school meals has fallen since it became free, while others thought the quality stayed consistent. Junior Steve Zhang, who has been buying school lunch for two years, said he would rather go back to eating the lunch that he previously paid for, since he felt that it was better quality.
On the other hand, sophomore Riley Phan felt that the creation of the free meal program lifted the burden of paying for school meals. Meanwhile, regarding the quality of the free meals, sophomore Natalie Zhou said the free lunches taste similar to before the pandemic.
“We really take care of our quality,” said Ong. “Even though it is individually wrapped, that’s just for now.”
Ong said that they plan to provide more home-made options, or meals the nutrition staff prepare and cook by themselves on campus, over pre-made foods shipped already prepackaged from their supplier. Preferred home-made options include the spicy chicken sandwich, which they plan to continue serving after seeing student demand for it increase. With the high risk of catching Covid-19 in the long lines the snack line usually attracts, the administration decided to close the snack line. Fortunately for students who frequently bought snacks, the nutrition staff plan to reopen the snack line in two to three months, where they would serve their regular chips and cookies.