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Free lunch at Poway Unified Schools causing long lines, students run out of time to eat

The district is trying to come up with solutions, but there's no quick fix.

POWAY, Calif. — It's a math problem schools across the state are having a hard time answering: If a lunch period is 35-minutes, but the line to get food is 40-minutes, how do you make sure every student has time for lunch?

A Del Norte High parent sent News 8 a video that shows students in several long lunch lines that are clearly not moving very fast. Their concern? We're now several weeks into the school year and the problem hasn’t improved. 

High school senior Mustafa Sharaf says it’s a big problem. 

“I've seen kids who just unpack their lunch and there's literally like two minutes left of lunch,” Sharaf said. 

Sharaf says he's personally seen students quickly take five bites of their food and then throw the rest away just so they can make it to class on time.

“We are aware of the longer lunch lines at some of our school campuses,” said Christine Paik, the Chief Communications Officer with Poway Unified School District. 

Paik says there are two main issues here. The first is that the pandemic is still hitting a lot of families hard. To make sure students get food, the federal government is requiring schools across the country to offer free lunches to every student. 

As a result, they're serving a lot more meals.

The second problem is a hiring shortage. In fact, available job openings are front and center on the district's website. 

“We do need more food and nutrition workers,” Paik said. “But there's a hiring and staffing shortage - not just in Poway Unified, but across school districts in this county.”  

She added that the district is trying to come up with solutions, but there's no quick fix. 

“You can't just extend the lunch period. All of our school schedules are built around required instructional minutes so, a longer lunch period cuts into teaching time.”

For students, the situation extends beyond hungry stomachs. Lunch is also time to fill their hearts with friendship, but the lines are preventing socialization. 

And there's the issue of waiting for half an hour in the hot sun. 

“A lot of people have to stay in huge lines in the heat and so people take off masks outside - so it can also spread COVID,” Sharaf said. “So it's a really big problem.”

The free lunch program is being subsidized by the federal government this year, but California has already said it will continue to pay for the program in the future. 

So the long lines will continue. Teaching students at the affected schools that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

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