Let’s make free school meals for all permanent in California

May 10, 2021

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.

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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.

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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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