www.montereycountyweekly.com january 18-24, 2024 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY 17 gram for all students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. That means school lunch—as well as breakfast and supper—are now available to all students free of charge, regardless of income. “It took away the stigma that was generally associated with school meals and eating at school,” says Micha James, MPUSD’s director of nutrition services. MPUSD, like other districts, has reported increased participation at all schools in the district—more kids are eating school lunch. NMCUSD has offered free meals to all students since the 2018-2019 school year, thanks to a federal program for school districts located in low-income areas (87 percent of students and families at NMCUSD are socio-economically disadvantaged). Once the district shifted to free meals for all, the number of students taking lunch at school at NMCUSD increased by 50 percent. Of course part of that is price, and part of that is quality. “We recognize that school meals must look and taste good if children are going to eat them,” according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. And there are other considerations. As Carmel Unified School District’s nutrition director, Alexis Supancic, put it in presenting an annual report in October: “We want to get them through the line as fast as possible so they have the time to play, especially the little ones.” That’s where cafeteria workers, with a limited budget and limited time to serve hundreds of customers, need to get creative. Ten minutes before lunchtime, students slowly start to line up outside the closed cafeteria door at North Monterey High School. Behind the scenes in the kitchen, staff are quickly‌assembling meal kits with chicken, green pozole, chips, cabbage and lime for the entree. Meanwhile, other workers organize the cafeteria before it opens so the line can move smoothly and students can grab their meals, fruit and snacks. Once the bell rings, hundreds of students rush into the cafeteria, grabbing ready-to-go meals. (To help with speed during a 30-minute lunch period, there are four other meal distribution points across the high school, including a cart and kiosk.) It looks like an anthill, all moving—the once-silent cafeteria is suddenly full of students chattering and grabbing food and finding a place to eat. The chicken pozole recipe is special for NMCUSD kitchen employees: It is the result of a collaborative effort. When Chef Stephanie Alias came on board, they revised the recipe and she asked everyone what they liked and how they prepared it at home. “She took all of their feedback, and helped create this kind of shared pozole recipe,” Doherty says. Since Alias started in 2022, the district has added 35 new items to the menu. Alias is a member of Brigaid, an organization that provides kitchen training and assessments, and Right: Each meal includes protein, grains, veggies and fruit, as shown at North Monterey County High School. Below right: Lunchtime is the meal that attracts most students. At MPUSD they serve between 4,800 to 5,200 lunches per day. A smaller number of students also eat breakfast and supper at school. Photos by Daniel Dreifuss