By Lou Ponsi
Thanks in large part to a waiver extended by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), schools have been able to continue providing meals at no cost to all children 18 and under through June.
For the Capistrano Unified School District, the waiver has helped the district serve more than one-million free meals from when the pandemic started through November.
Since the first day of school on Aug. 18, 2020, CUSD has served nearly 700,000 free meals through November.
The waiver also enabled the district to continue providing meals which can be eaten at home, said Kristen Hilleman, Nutrition Specialist with the district’s Food & Nutrition Services Department.
“(The waiver) has been extraordinarily important,” Hilleman said. “When we started the school year on Aug. 18, we were mandated to return to our normal structure for national school lunch and school breakfast feeding.”
Through the National School Lunch Program, families qualify for free meals or meals at a reduced price.
CUSD, however, provides all meals at no charge to all qualifying families, Hilleman said.
“When the school year started and we had to transition from free meals for all back to the structure of pay or no pay, the meal count was greatly reduced and families were confused,” she said. “Once the waiver was instituted with all meals being free, we saw a rise in the meal counts. The waiver has cleared the air and allowed it just to be a universal free program.”
On-campus elementary, middle and high school menus include breakfast and lunch. Take-home meal packages include five lunch entrees, five breakfast entrees, five vegetables, 10 pieces of fruit and a half-gallon of milk.
The meal breakdown for CUSD is as follows:
- Elementary Full Day: on-campus lunch is available in the cafeteria. Packaged breakfast is available with lunch to take home for the next day.
- Elementary Hybrid (half-day students): morning on-campus students can pick up lunch and packaged breakfast at dismissal to take home and eat. Afternoon on-campus students can arrive at school 15-20 minutes early, pick up lunch and packaged breakfast from the cafeteria, and eat lunch on campus before their school day begins.
- Secondary Hybrid (middle/high school students): on-campus breakfast and on-campus lunch are available during break and meal periods. At the end of the school day, breakfast and lunch bags are available to take home for the following day(s) of online learning.
- 100-percent online Learners and any child under 18: five-day meal bags are available every Monday from 8:30-9 a.m. and 3-4 p.m. at the CUSD Food & Nutrition Services Office at 32972 Calle Perfecto in San Juan Capistrano. Meals are also offered at four bus stops from 10-10:30 a.m.
The USDA waiver allows CUSD’s Nutrition Services to focus on its main role of feeding children, said Shannon Illingworth, Nutrition Specialist.
“It just makes it a little easier for the community to know that everyone can eat for free,” Illingworth said. “Just come in and we’ll feed you.”
Without the waiver, the district would continue feeding students, but on a much smaller scale, Hilleman said. “Participation probably would have dropped drastically compared to where we are now.”
There are questions that will need to be answered by the USDA as the district looks ahead to the 2021-22 school year, Hilleman said.
“(We need) to make sure that our students are going to be able to be fed appropriately,” she said.
Hilleman also praised the efforts of the 180 workers in the Food & Nutrition Services Department through what has been a challenging school year.
“We have some amazing, amazing employees,” she said. “I really think that they need a big shout out.”