Program gives California schoolchildren free meals, here’s what parents need to know

Beth Torres

Finally, some good news for California parents facing high food costs. The California Department of Education has announced that California will become the first state in the nation to offer all public school students free meals each school day.

Starting with the 2022-23 school year, the California Universal Meals program will offer both a nutritious breakfast and lunch to all 6 million public school students. The program has now expanded to offer meals to not just needy children, but to all children.

The program mandates that California public school districts serving students in transitional kindergarten (TK) through grade 12 provide two free meals (breakfast and lunch) during the school day to any student requesting a meal. The requirement also includes county offices of education and charter schools. Students can receive their free meals regardless of their family’s income level.

How is California paying for the expanded free school lunch program?

California’s recovery from the economic shutdown caused by the pandemic has been particularly strong. State officials estimate the state currently has a surplus of almost $49 billion.

Last July, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the state budget, which includes the allocated funds needed to cover the costs associated with the expansion of the Universal Meals Program. Starting in 2022, $650 million will be allocated to reimburse school districts for the expanded meal program.

An additional one-time funding of $150 million has been made available to school districts to upgrade their kitchen infrastructure and provide for staff training needed to implement the expanded Universal Meals Program.

Why is the program important for California parents and schoolchildren?

Food insecurity and food price inflation are increasing at an alarming rate in the state. The California Association of Food Banks reports that nearly 8 million Californians (about 20 percent of the population) face food insecurity, which is an ongoing struggle to access food needed for a healthy life.

A lack of nutritious food puts schoolchildren at risk for physical and mental health problems, along with increasing the risk of poor attendance and performance. Recently, families of all income levels have been struggling with the high price of food as inflation skyrockets to the highest level the nation has seen in over 40 years.

While some California school districts have already been providing free meals to students regardless of household income levels, the Federal funds that enabled them to do so were for the 2021-22 school year. The new program ensures that all school districts have the funds needed to provide free meals to students in the upcoming year.

Another point made by advocates of the expanded school meals program is that previously families had to disclose their income and other personal information for their children to qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. Some parents were reluctant to provide that information.

Additionally, some students who participated in the program reported being stigmatized by their peers and embarrassed to receive the free meals. These issues should no longer be problems now that free meals are available to all California schoolchildren regardless of income.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who spearheaded the expanded meal program, 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.”

What do you think about California’s Universal Meals Program?

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