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POWAY, Calif. — Poway Unified is one of several local school districts feeling the effects of a nationwide food shortage when it comes to school lunches.

Both federal and state leaders have made school lunches available free of charge for students enrolled in public school, making the demand much higher while the supply is extremely low.

“The pandemic has been a roller coaster ride for school districts, our families, our students and whatever comes up we try to adjust and roll with the punches. The latest challenge is food supply for school meals,” Poway Unified School District Chief Communications Officer Christine Paik said.

Across California, 6.2 million students now have the option to eat for free, and districts across the county are feeling the unintended effects of the nation’s largest free school lunch program.

“We are serving free school meals to any and all students who want them. This is a huge increase over the old days when you had to qualify for free meals or you bought meals,” Paik said.

Poway Unified, for example, has gone from serving about 11,000 students per day to roughly 29,000.

“When you factor that in with other school districts all around the country, you’re seeing supply issues, labor shortages, transportation tie ups,” Paik explained.

Earlier this week, the PUSD Food and Nutrition Department sent a letter to parents explaining that one way they would combat the food shortage is by offering fewer options for students. The district has also created a special committee to find new solutions.

Meantime, Michael Murad from the county’s largest school district, San Diego Unified, said, “Like school districts throughout the nation, San Diego Unified’s food and nutrition services department is experiencing supply chain issues this year due to COVID-19. All students continue to have full access to free school meals, and our main entrée options have remained largely unchanged.

“We have made substitutions for some menu items that were unavailable. Our team is constantly working with our food suppliers to identify items that will be shorted and finding quality alternatives for the students to enjoy.”

Paik said this is not an issue PUSD is taking lightly: “We know how important a school meal is to a student’s learning. You can’t be concentrating on calculus if your stomach’s growling, and so we know this is a problem, and we’re trying to fix that.”

In addition to a lower food supply, staffing shortages in many districts, including Poway, are leading to long lunch lines. Poway Unified said they are hiring right now and encouraged anyone looking for work to apply through their website.