Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Dante Johnson, right, a LAUSD volunteer, distributes meals to Patricia Martinez with her children in her vehicle at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles on March 18, 2020.

With schools reopening for in-person classes as the pandemic wanes in California, teachers and school staff see the need to continue providing free school meals.  We support efforts to make free school meals permanent, including state Senate Bill 364, because as school nutrition directors we know school food can be the essential learning tool.

Before the coronavirus forced schools to close, we witnessed older kids in our Fontana and Palm Springs school districts stowing food so they and their younger siblings wouldn’t go hungry over the weekend. Some high school students would say to us on Mondays that they hadn’t had any food for the past two days because it wasn’t their turn to eat.

Some elementary school teachers told us their students didn’t have lunch. Many keep snacks for hungry students in their classrooms. It’s heartbreaking.

But it isn’t unique to our districts: It happens all over the state. Food service workers keep change in their pockets so they can pay for kids who don’t have money to buy lunch.

The pandemic has highlighted what we’ve known for a long time — hunger is widespread. In Palm Springs, for example, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals has steadily increased, from 83.5% in 2016 to 89.7% in 2020. The economic fallout from the pandemic has made things worse.

Some parents have lost jobs. Some have lost loved ones. We’ve had many grateful parents crying as they picked up meal packs, saying they’ve never needed help before, but now they would not have been able to put food on the table without free school meals.

We have been able to address their hunger thanks to federal waivers that made every child 18 and under eligible to receive free school meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has extended these waivers until June 30, 2022.

Prior to the pandemic, free or reduced-price lunch was available only to low-income children whose parents claimed the benefit. Many Latino families feared using public services would threaten their immigration status and didn’t submit the paperwork. If their children needed lunch, the parents were billed, running up a debt they couldn’t afford. District attempts to collect on that debt proved nightmarish; however, California requires districts to pay the debt from their general fund, strapping already struggling schools.

Providing free meals eliminates school meal debt and, significantly, reduces stress and stigma on struggling families. Each of us has worked in school nutrition for more than 15 years, and we have seen how stigma can keep students from eating school meals. Permanently providing meals for every student would address hunger, a too common barrier to learning.

President Joe Biden is proposing to offer low-income families food subsidies during the summer and expand reimbursements for meals to school districts that qualify. While we welcome these national efforts, California needs its own complementary plan.

The federal proposal may leave out up to 42% of the schools in California, according to the Center for Ecoliteracy. Many families simply do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of our state’s high cost of living, and therefore a correlating number of school districts do not qualify for reimbursements. Senate Bill 364, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, builds on the federal programs by providing two nutritious meals a day to every student during the 2022-23 school year when the federal waivers expire.

Districts still would be reimbursed by the federal government for students eligible for free meals and would be partially reimbursed for students who qualify for reduced-price meals. This would ensure that almost half the remaining state school districts could provide free school meals not covered in the federal plan, imparting consistency for families who have come to rely on the program.

Hungry children quickly become distracted children. When kids eat healthy foods, they pay attention in class. Providing healthy meals affects all the kids in the classroom, not just the hungry ones.

We need to provide our children every advantage to help them improve their academic performance and be successful in life. One of the ways to do that is to nourish their bodies as well as their minds.

Now is the time to make free school meals for all permanent.

•••

Trieste Huey is the director of food services for the Fontana Unified School District in San Bernardino County. Stephanie Bruce is the director of nutrition services for Palm Springs Unified in Riverside County.

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  1. Sarah 1 month ago1 month ago

    As a dietitian and a mother of four (who have been receiving free lunch since last spring), I say “Amen!” to this article. Children should not have to suffer or be stigmatized if their families cannot afford enough food. Free meals has been one of the blessings to come out of the darkness of Covid.

    Thank you for the work you are doing!

  2. Erin Kraemer 1 month ago1 month ago

    I totally agree California should step up to the plate and provide free meals for all. Currently schools that have more than 50% low income students can qualify for all free food service, including breakfast. But that doesn't include off-site homeschoolers, PSA homeschoolers, or private schools. It should be for any child 0-18 regardless of enrollment. I was able to pick up summer meals for my 3 kids in 2020 because the district handed out … Read More

    I totally agree California should step up to the plate and provide free meals for all. Currently schools that have more than 50% low income students can qualify for all free food service, including breakfast. But that doesn’t include off-site homeschoolers, PSA homeschoolers, or private schools. It should be for any child 0-18 regardless of enrollment. I was able to pick up summer meals for my 3 kids in 2020 because the district handed out to all kids, not just students at their school. Some kids are homeless and truant, some children have disabilities, so.e kids just don’t attend anymore after last year’s chaos. If we are trying to erase stigma, then we need to provide food for ALL children regardless of enrollment status or address.

  3. Walnutgal 1 month ago1 month ago

    I agree but all kids should get free lunch including those that homeschool and those in private school. Private school is a forced necessity now because day care in public school is so scarce or nonexistent. Poor areas don’t have busing. Poor people need to maintain their jobs so need to make sure they have reliable daycare and school. Most private schools in our area allow daycare 6 am to 6 … Read More

    I agree but all kids should get free lunch including those that homeschool and those in private school. Private school is a forced necessity now because day care in public school is so scarce or nonexistent. Poor areas don’t have busing. Poor people need to maintain their jobs so need to make sure they have reliable daycare and school. Most private schools in our area allow daycare 6 am to 6 pm. No public schools in my area offer that.

    In the summer, I’m lucky enough that my area has free food for all children regardless of what school they go to. This should be year round though.

  4. Lothar 1 month ago1 month ago

    Sounds good as long as we also give free meals to California taxpayers that send their kids to private schools.

  5. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    My experience is restricted to LAUSD. The food there is extremely nasty. Prepared in central kitchens and transported to schools it is so horrible that few will eat it. The SEIU sponsored a program call Breakfast in the Classroom, BIC, that mandates each kid is served a breakfast during what would otherwise be instructional time. There is/was no way for parents to opt-out. The result was less instruction, lots of trash and wastage as kids … Read More

    My experience is restricted to LAUSD. The food there is extremely nasty. Prepared in central kitchens and transported to schools it is so horrible that few will eat it. The SEIU sponsored a program call Breakfast in the Classroom, BIC, that mandates each kid is served a breakfast during what would otherwise be instructional time. There is/was no way for parents to opt-out. The result was less instruction, lots of trash and wastage as kids refused to eat the food, and angry parents.

  6. Amber M 1 month ago1 month ago

    You ladies are doing amazing work. Keep letting your voices be heard!

  7. Kimmy B 1 month ago1 month ago

    I agree, but the food should be healthy. What is currently provided is mostly prepackaged snack like foods – not the healthy nutritious food all our kids deserve.

    Replies

    • Erin Kraemer 1 month ago1 month ago

      Unfortunately most large school districts are required to purchase food directly from the USDA. It is very cheap and schools would not otherwise be able to pay for food from other vendors at regular price. Either USDA needs to improve quality, someone needs to increase the food budget, or more schools need access to healthy food programs like Farm to School that pays for locally harvested foods from farmers and ranchers or pays for school gardens.