Starting with the 2021-2022 school year, all Sunny Hills students are eligible to get free breakfast and lunch on campus for free as well as a take-home dinner

A+worker+in+the+Sunny+Hills+cafeteria+kitchen+puts+one+of+the+food+items+for+students+into+a+grab-and-go+bag+Friday%2C+Aug.+13%2C+in+preparation+for+the+first+day+of+school+Monday%2C+Aug.+16.+The+bag+is+among+thousands+that+workers+loaded+with+food+for+any+student+to+pick+up+for+free+for+breakfast%2C+lunch+and+dinner+--+the+first+year+of+universal+meals+that+California+has+offered+for+all+public+school+students.

Rebekah Kim

A worker in the Sunny Hills cafeteria kitchen puts one of the food items for students into a grab-and-go bag Friday, Aug. 13, in preparation for the first day of school Monday, Aug. 16. The bag is among thousands that workers loaded with food for any student to pick up for free for breakfast, lunch and dinner — the first year of universal meals that California has offered for all public school students.

Jiwoo Han

For the first time in California, all public school students including those at Sunny Hills will be eligible for free food from the cafeteria during each day while on campus starting the first day of fall classes, Aug. 16  – once during break and once during lunch with a take-home meal for dinner if requested.

“Free meals for all students, regardless of their [parents’ income] eligibility, is the most compassionate and equitable way of serving students,” said Edgar Manalo, the director of purchasing, contracts, warehouse & food services for the Fullerton Joint Union High School District [FJUHSD]. “Students do well in school when they are not hungry.”

Based on a $262 billion state budget signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom over the summer, state legislators have set aside $54 million to pay for the cost to provide free meals to public school students this school year, not counting federal funding from President Joe Biden’s administration through June 2022. 

After that, state lawmakers have agreed to spend $650 million annually on the program, which is the first state in the country to offer universal free meals for public school students, according to various online media reports. In the past, students only qualified for free or reduced cost meals if their parents filled out a form demonstrating they met a certain low income threshold. Otherwise, they had to pay the full cost of the food option, which is why many Sunny Hills students prefer to bring food from home or buy their lunch off campus if they are eligible to leave.

Ella Ongkoputro, the FJUHSD’s newly hired food service lead at Sunny Hills, gave the following procedure for how food pickup will work and when the meals will be available:

  • Students must swipe their SH ID card each time before picking up a bag for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner.
  • Except for when breakfast will be first made available at 7:20 a.m. only in the cafeteria, every subsequent meal pickup will be available at the cafeteria and the Roundhouse. 
  • Students can pick up breakfast either before first period or during break.
  • When students get their lunch bag after Period 5, they will only be given another one to take home for dinner upon request.
  • Students can only pick up one bag for each meal; in other words, they can’t pick up breakfast with their ID card before school and another breakfast during break. 

Free meals for all students, regardless of their [parents’ income] eligibility, is the most compassionate and equitable way of serving students”

— FJUHSD director of purchasing, contracts, warehouse & food services Edgar Manalo

In past years, approximately 700 meals per day were served at Sunny Hills, Ongkoputro said. However, because of the universal free food option this school year, she and her staff will have to prepare more than three times that amount if all students enrolled – nearly 2,500 as of Aug. 12 – decide to get their food from the cafeteria or Roundhouse.

“While that number seems very large, our staff will have to assess the demand during the first couple of weeks [in August],” Ongkoputro said. “It is our aim to serve the whole population, but we also have to be conscious about not having too much waste.”

In the past, four or five entrée options were given to students, but this year, the school will prepare a grab-and-go meal with only a couple of entrée options each day similar to the type of food distributed during hybrid learning the last school year like coffee cake for breakfast or a small salad and breaded chicken tenders for lunch.

“We would like to serve as many students as we could during the school year and meet their nutritional needs while maintaining students’ safety all at the same time,” Ongkoputro said, adding, “We will try to introduce new items during the new school year.”

While students only have 20 minutes at break to pick up food and an extra 10 minutes longer during lunch, school officials will be looking at any adjustments they’ll have to make to make the meal distribution process faster and more efficient.

“Our food service folks will adjust as necessary to keep lines at a manageable level,” principal Allen Whitten said. 

While no information has been sent digitally as of Sunday, Aug. 15, to inform students about the free meal offer on campus, that also explains why a majority of students were not aware of this opportunity.

“I had no idea this would be happening,” senior Elizabeth Kim said. “This would make me want to eat school lunch more often, especially at times when I am unable to bring my own food or go to [the Amerige Heights Town Center]. Everyone loves free things.”

Another senior, Daniel Lee, agrees.

“I’ve always considered school food in high school to be a great thing because it’s some of the cheapest but most decent food for students to access,” Lee said. “Now with this change, it would be foolish of me to not take advantage of free food.” 

His mother, Sunny Lee, said she appreciates the change in who’s eligible for free school meals, but questioned the nutritional value even though state guidelines require public school meals to meet certain health guidelines.

“My only concern is the quality of the food, whether [the meal is] free or not,” Sunny Lee said. “I think every meal should be decently balanced.” 

As for whether students are interested in the dinner option, junior Giselle Suastegui said she plans to pass on the offer.

“Thankfully, there is always dinner at my house prepared by my parents, so I don’t find myself needing a free dinner,” Suastegui said. “I do see it as a great opportunity [for others] though.”