While local students enjoyed summer break, Pasadena Unified School District’s Food and Nutrition Services Department was hard at work providing free summer meals at more than 30 locations citywide, and revamping their menus to better serve low-income and at-risk students.

The upcoming 2019-20 school year marks the second year of the district participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program that allows eligible schools in low-income areas to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all enrolled students at the school without any individualized means-based application.

Elizabeth Powell, director of food service for PUSD, said that for the coming school year, nine more schools have become eligible for the CEP program, doubling the number of sites that participated in the first year.

Erin Meza, the district’s food service operations supervisor, explained that schools taking part in the CEP saw an increase in the total number of students receiving school meals. Meza explained, as more students eat lunch at school it helps in reducing stigmas associated with free and reduced-price lunches.

In addition, Powell explained, the program benefits parents who may have found themselves on the cusp of receiving free and reduced-lunch benefits yet struggling to pay for their children’s meals.

“This way [the parents] don’t have to worry about that because the children can come in and eat breakfast and lunch at no charge.” Powell said.

By state law, free or reduced-price nutritionally adequate meals must be made available to those children who qualify for such benefits. Further, states the California Department of Education website, “these meals must be made available in such a way that it is not readily apparent that children are receiving free or reduced-price meals,” and meticulous records must be kept for each student. Funding for these programs can be reimbursed through CEP and other federal programs.

On July 1, PUSD announced that it was serving meals every school day under the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and/or the Afterschool Snack Program. Through June 30, children are eligible for these free or reduced-price meals if the household income is less than or equal to the federal guidelines.

Meza and Powell said they are moving local schools cuisines away from pre-packaged and prepared foods into what they call “simple, scratch cooking” wherever possible due to the limitations of the school kitchens and number of students being served.

Powell said they are also sourcing fresh produce and baked goods to use for things like hamburgers that used to come fully prepared and frozen.

“We’re making our own salad dressings, we’re making our own mashed potatoes and we’re roasting our own vegetables, those types of things make it more appealing for the students.” Powell said.

Meza said the early reviews on the simple scratch items that were given out during the summer meal program were overwhelmingly positive.

With more students expected to be participating in the school lunch program, the menus have been revamped based on student input. Although the menu is undergoing some changes, Meza promised the spicy chicken sandwich, which is the undeniable favorite across all grade levels, is not going anywhere.

“Last year we surveyed the students at the three different levels and we asked them what they prefer and then we built a three week menu cycle around that.”

At the high school level, Powell and Meza are most excited to announce the new changes coming to the districts high school cafeterias — namely a weekly concept bar every Thursday.

“When you go to a restaurant and you can have a mac and cheese bar with all the different toppings — we’re doing that in the schools,” Powell said.  “One week they’ll have mac and cheese, another week they’ll have a fry bar with all the different toppings; and we also have a ramen bar.”

Powell and Meza explained the disparity at the high schools where some students have every meal delivered to the school via an app simultaneously there are a high number of students experiencing homelessness and poverty who may only eat school lunch.

High schoolers will no longer have to use the spork packets and trays when they head back to school in the fall. Instead, they will receive silverware and food will be served on a nine-inch plate rather than pre-divided trays. They plan on rolling the new cutlery out to the elementary and junior high school students in the near future.

“We’re competing with UberEats and where some students will order McDonald’s, paying $20 for their meal versus coming into the cafeteria because there’s a stigma that you’re [receiving] free or reduced lunch if you come to the cafeteria and eat.” Powell said.

“We’re trying to treat them like adults and make them feel good about coming in and eating with us.” Meza said.