With 1 in every 6 children facing hunger in the U.S., California is the first state to promise every public school student — all 6 million of them — free school meals.
The universal school meals program, which will launch in the 2022-2023 school year, is part of the landmark state budget agreement reached between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature last month. Days later, Maine became the second state to commit to offering a universal school meals program with the signing of its budget.
The program ensures that all students will be offered breakfast and lunch at their school, which state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said is “essential to learning.” Skinner has led the effort to establish a universal school meal program.
“We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you’re hungry you cannot learn well,” Skinner said. “The whole point of school is learning, and everything we can do to create an environment that allows children to thrive and learn is what we need to do.”
Skinner introduced a bill in March that would have established a universal school meal program.
After the program garnered bipartisan support and the California Department of Finance forecast unexpectedly large projected revenues, lawmakers opted to include it in the state budget rather than as a separate bill.
The final agreement between Newsom and the Legislature calls for $650 million through the Proposition 98 fund each year to reimburse school districts starting in 2022, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year to supplement state meal reimbursements. Proposition 98 is the formula that determines what portion of the general fund goes to community colleges and K-12 schools.
The state program is set to begin in the 2022-23 school year because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already committed to paying for school meals for all students through the 2021-22 school year.
The USDA has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students since the start of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, districts were only reimbursed for feeding students who were enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. Advocates said being able to feed students without having to check whether they qualified for free lunches allowed districts to serve more families at a time when many faced hunger and hardship.
Waiving the eligibility requirements allowed the Oakland Unified School District, for example, to distribute as many as 18,000 grab-and-go meals a day during the pandemic, said spokesman John Sasaki.
“That just goes to show the need that was there,” Sasaki said.
Previously, as part of the National School Lunch Program application process, families had to disclose their household income, how many people lived in the household, their children’s immigration status or if their children were homeless or runaways. Some families feared giving out that information, and students may have felt embarrassed to receive a free meal while others paid for it.
Schools in New York City began serving free meals to all students in 2017 after finding that some students would rather go hungry than admit they didn’t have enough money to pay for lunch. The decision followed a national outcry over “lunch shaming” — publicly shaming students for unpaid school meal bills, or even school staff throwing away their lunches rather than allowing them to eat.
Advocates believed that though 3.9 million students — 63% of California’s student body — participated in the program, the need was actually much higher.
“It’s such good news that everybody gets food with no strings attached, but to be able to do it in a way that nobody is called out is the best thing about this,” Sasaki said. “We want to make sure kids are never given a hard time for being who they are or being in the situation they are in.”
Districts will still be asking families to fill out household income eligibility forms, however. That’s because the number of families in the district that make so little that they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program remains a key factor in the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. The formula gives additional state funds to districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners, foster children and homeless youth they serve.
Tony Wold, the West Contra Costa Unified associate superintendent of business services, said the district was concerned that fewer families would fill out the household income eligibility forms because they didn’t have to in order to receive free meals. That could have potentially led to a reduction in supplemental funds for the cash-strapped district. To help solve the problem, the district had outreach workers call families directly, explaining why it was important for families to submit the information.
The outreach workers’ “big lift” resulted in more families filling out the forms than the previous year, Wold said, which kept the district’s unduplicated pupils percentage constant. That statistic measures the share of a district’s students who are low-income, homeless, foster youth or English learners — all of which drive the Local Control Funding Formula.
Outreach workers at Oakland Unified emphasize to families who are skeptical about the forms that they determine how much money goes to the classroom, Sasaki said.
California School Boards Association spokesman Troy Flint said the organization anticipates it will be harder for districts to collect income eligibility forms with the new universal meals program. The association hopes the state will provide some support to schools’ “diligent and creative efforts” to collect the forms, though the group isn’t calling for any specific change.
“This administration has prioritized steering additional money toward high-need students, particularly into concentration grants, so there’s reason to believe they might be willing to work toward a modification here,” Flint said.
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Suzie Reid-Custer 5 months ago5 months ago
I have been an educator for 30 years. I am 54 years old and live in the Central San Joaquin Valley. With the rising costs of everything, including groceries, gas, rent, PG&E, and all of our necessities of life, my husband and I are finding it very hard to make ends meet. I do make a good salary, but my husband was injured and has been off of work recovering from 2 separate surgeries. In … Read More
I have been an educator for 30 years. I am 54 years old and live in the Central San Joaquin Valley. With the rising costs of everything, including groceries, gas, rent, PG&E, and all of our necessities of life, my husband and I are finding it very hard to make ends meet. I do make a good salary, but my husband was injured and has been off of work recovering from 2 separate surgeries.
In California, getting disability and/or Workman’s Comp is very hard to get, even when the doctors say that the injuries were a direct cause of years of repetitive action on work equipment. So, in our single income home, we often do not have enough money for good quality foods, or to indulge in any truly nice meals. Since every student is able to receive a free lunch, I would love to see this allocation carry over to the teaching staff. However, in our district, our students’ lunches became free and the price of the adult/staff lunches rose from $4 to $5.50 each now.
I just can’t afford to eat at school, so I have to make and pack my lunch to school each day. I would truly appreciate someone looking into how teachers could also get free or reduced lunches. We are deeply affected by the current economic crisis, but yet we still have to spend so much of our own money to meet the needs of our students and we are not given any discounts. Many of our paraprofessionals make such little money that they qualify for EBT cards themselves. I just would like for someone to try to work something out to make staff meals more affordable, or free, which would be ideal.
Pat H 10 months ago10 months ago
Do home schooled kids get free breakfast and lunch also?
Jennifer Chance 1 year ago1 year ago
I work at an Elementary school and it’s about pretty much half and half between bringing and “buying” or getting hot lunch and i have to say there’s WAY too much waste. Whoever picks out the menu is not doing a good survey or communication with their meal duties to find out what the kids like and what the kids are not eating daily. This would help greatly. We are there we know … Read More
I work at an Elementary school and it’s about pretty much half and half between bringing and “buying” or getting hot lunch and i have to say there’s WAY too much waste. Whoever picks out the menu is not doing a good survey or communication with their meal duties to find out what the kids like and what the kids are not eating daily. This would help greatly. We are there we know it gets tossed. Every single day I can literally amass 30-40 plastic bags of apple and carrot bags. That is just between Kindergarten, first and 2nd grade! These two things don’t expire for about 10 days and there’s no reason why the homeless should not be benefiting from it or at minimum the kids who could be taking it home if their parents knew it was going in the trash daily. As I read online it has already been made a statute in California that we should be donating it to the organizations of need staff and families in our communities. This is a terrible injustice on our planet for the greenhouse gas we are causing as well. We need more communication amongst the schools of what we can do with this extra produce daily by the pound. Thank you.
cookie clicker 2 years ago2 years ago
I’m a teacher on a tight budget, and I’m wondering if the free lunches also apply to school workers. What is good for the goose is good for the goose.
Jayne Clemmons 2 years ago2 years ago
I work at a high school in California as a student services support person. I can appreciate the ideology/intent behind the program. Of course no one wants to see children inadequately nourished. However, I have seen tremendous waste with this program. Our high school students may eat one thing, sometimes nothing (some even complain and the food at which time I remind them that A. it's free and B. no one is forcing them to … Read More
I work at a high school in California as a student services support person. I can appreciate the ideology/intent behind the program. Of course no one wants to see children inadequately nourished. However, I have seen tremendous waste with this program. Our high school students may eat one thing, sometimes nothing (some even complain and the food at which time I remind them that A. it’s free and B. no one is forcing them to take it) and then dump, leave behind in a littering fashion, or my favorite, smash, throw the food. Our outside quad and indoor cafeteria, which are our two designated eating areas, are trashed. And when the kids are littering our school with their uneaten, half-eaten food, along with the wrappers, underpaid school staff have to come up behind them to clean up their mess!!!! It is a strong display of disrespect.
The exorbitant amount of waste is such a disservice to people in our community who truly are in need. And the second aspect is from an environmental stand point, all the cardboard trays, and wrappers for all the individually packaged food cannot be an Earth-wise thing. There has got to be a much better way or nourishing our students because from what I have seen first hand, this program is a fail.
Karl Marx 2 years ago2 years ago
YES! One step closer to a socialist Marxist society. We all know how great those are!
Matt 2 years ago2 years ago
As a teacher on a shoe-string budget, I’m wondering if the free meals apply to school staff as well? What’s good for the goose…
Arianna Morales 2 years ago2 years ago
It's so important that schools are now able to provide meals for all children, but is anyone talking about the quality of the meals? My son is in West Contra Costa and the meals have been either filled with sugar or cheese and sugary drinks are always offered. Is the state supporting districts with the budget and guidance to ensure children are able to receive healthy fresh meals, not just pre-packaged foods? Do children still … Read More
It’s so important that schools are now able to provide meals for all children, but is anyone talking about the quality of the meals? My son is in West Contra Costa and the meals have been either filled with sugar or cheese and sugary drinks are always offered. Is the state supporting districts with the budget and guidance to ensure children are able to receive healthy fresh meals, not just pre-packaged foods?
Do children still have the choice to bring their own food from home? So far this has not been the message to families.
Mary anne Payne 2 years ago2 years ago
Free lunch for all kids? The meals provided have no nutritional value!! How am I going to get the kids to eat the healthy food I send if the school is feeding them junk? Thanks, Big Brother.
Debbie Friedman 2 years ago2 years ago
New research brief by Healthy Eating Research discusses some of the issues brought up in this article: https://healthyeatingresearch.org/research/improving-access-to-free-school-meals-addressing-intersections-between-universal-free-school-meal-approaches-and-educational-funding/