End of free lunch program influences students, cafeteria staff

Pennsylvania will again offer free breakfast to all students beginning October 1st.

Cafeteria+manager+Pat+Gillman+attends+to+a+student+in+the+NASH+cafeteria.

Kat Klinefelter

Cafeteria manager Pat Gillman attends to a student in the NASH cafeteria.

Andrew McLaughlin, Co-Editor-in-Chief

It is a popular saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch, yet for the past two years, students at North Allegheny and across the country were able to receive breakfast and lunch free of charge at school.

However, with the expiration of the federal waivers which granted free meals for more than two years, daily free lunch has been discontinued.

Some students, such as senior Ryan Handron, feel that the change is mostly unnoticeable.

“It takes some getting used to after getting free lunch and breakfast for a few years, but there have always been many options [in the cafeteria], even last year,” Handron said.

While the $2.85 price is back, it is not the only option when it comes to purchasing lunch. Along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the district will continue to offer free or reduced-price meals to families in need of financial assistance.

Additionally, school breakfast will soon be free of charge once again.

On September 9th, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a Universal Free Breakfast Program that will allow all students in public and private schools to receive free breakfast. The program, which comes at a cost of $21.5 million to the state, will begin on October 1st.

Even given the trying times of the pandemic, the food offered by the cafeteria has mostly stayed constant. Jay West, Dining Services Director at North Allegheny, pointed out the consistent quality of cafeteria food over the last two school years.

 “We transitioned back to our traditional program last school year, in anticipation of things going back to normal [for] this year. We have not deviated from menu standards during the past two years,” he said. 

Senior Andrew Minton agreed that the lunch menu has been consistent.

“I don’t notice any change from last year, aside from having to pay for it now,” Minton said.

Although universal free lunch programs are now a thing of the past, the pandemic taught invaluable lessons to cafeteria management and staff.

In March 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, making meals free for all students. The bill–intended to be temporary–was extended multiple times, allowing the free lunch program to last through the end of last school year.

Jay West, District Manager of North Allegheny food service, remains optimistic about the cafeteria staff’s ability to adapt. (Jess Daninhirsch)

West said that his staff weathered the challenges of COVID remarkably well, beginning in its earliest stages when the Families First bill was passed.

“Metz Culinary Management learned early on in the pandemic that there was a need to help families who might have been struggling financially,” West told The Uproar.

The pandemic was a testing experience for the cafeteria staff, but it is still an example of the unsung front-line workers who kept essential businesses running in the spring of 2020.

West reinforced the determination of the cafeteria workers in tough times, saying that “our staff revealed a lot about their character during that time. They arrived to work at 4:00 or 5:00 to prepare meals for the day, worked in the snow and rain, and in some regards, put their own health and safety at risk.”

It is currently unknown if cafeteria demand has shifted back to pre-pandemic levels, as West said that it is “too early to determine the level of participation compared to last school year.”

He said that Metz will have a better idea of how cafeteria participation compares to previous years in about a month.

The pandemic was a testing experience for the cafeteria staff, but it is still an example of the unsung front-line workers who kept essential businesses running in the spring of 2020.”

Like any business, supply chain issues have continued for Metz Culinary, but there has been some improvement compared to last year. Staffing levels have also been on the rise.

West reiterated that as the year has begun, “supplies have seemed much more available and we are beginning to see more folks interested in working for us as we continue building our team.”

Metz is still actively hiring cafeteria substitutes, with a hiring ad now placed at the bottom of the lunch menu. According to West, however, finding enough employees has never been a pressing issue for cafeteria management. 

Even after enduring a worldwide pandemic, supply chain shortages, and some of the district’s most trying school years, West is adamant that Metz will continue to provide quality meals to district students.

“We put our students first. Any decision that we make is always in the best interest of the students and their families at North Allegheny,” he said.