JOCELYN GECKER | AP
When classrooms in California reopen for the fall, all 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family’s income. The undertaking, made possible by a budget surplus, will be the largest free student lunch program in the country. School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations and parents are applauding it as a way to prevent the stigma of accepting free lunches and feeding more hungry children.
Several U.S. cities already offer free school meals for all. But until recently, statewide universal meal programs were considered too costly and unrealistic. California became the first state to adopt a universal program late last month.
“We’ve completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school food,” said Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. The extra funding will also allow her to offer tastier, better quality food such as fresh bread, produce and cheese from local producers, she said.
Under federal rules, a family of four must make less than $34,000 a year to qualify for free meals and $48,000 to qualify for reduced-price meals. The caps are based on federal poverty measures that don’t take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California.
About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children who need food assistance is much higher in a state with vast income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected and immigrant communities in particular are fearful of applying because of detailed forms that ask intrusive questions such as their family income, Social Security number and children’s immigration status.
Primer has countless tales of children who struggled to pay for school meals or were too ashamed to eat for free. There was the child whose mother called Primer, distraught because she made a few hundred dollars too much to qualify; the father who is in the country illegally and feared that filling out the free meal application could get him deported; and constant cases of high schoolers not wanting friends to know they need free food, so they skip eating.
When the pandemic hit, it changed everything — including how school meals were served — and provided an impetus for the universal program. After schools shut in March 2020, many transformed their parking lots into pickup sites, and federal funding allowed schools to offer meals to anyone, no questions asked. The massive turnout showed how much families rely on the meals.
“I thought it was a pipe dream for a long time,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, a longtime advocate for universal free meals. Backed by over 200 organizations in a coalition called “School Meals for All,” Skinner and other lawmakers pushed for funding in the state budget, seizing the momentum at a time when California is flush with cash. The $262 billion budget provides $54 million for the coming school year, supplementing funding from the Biden administration through June 2022. After that, California will spend $650 million annually.
For Tina Self, a mother of three, avoiding the cost of school lunches every day will be an enormous relief. “It might seem like a little bit, but it helps a lot,” said Self, who lives in San Luis Obispo. “Lucky for us we both have a job and we have two running cars,” she said of herself and her husband. “But we’re barely making it as it is.”