SAN FRANCISCO – When California classrooms reopen in the fall, all 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat free school meals, regardless of family income. how much are they.
This commitment, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus, will be the largest free school lunch program in the nation. School officials, legislators, anti-hungry organizations and parents are hailing it as a pioneering way to stop the stigma of accepting free lunches and feeding more hungry children.
“This is historic. It’s not life-changing,” said Erin Primer, food services director for the San Luis Coast Unified School District on California’s central coast.
Several US cities including New York, Boston and Chicago have provided free school meals to all. But until recently, statewide universal meal programs were considered too expensive and impractical. California became the first state to adopt the universal program late last month, and Maine followed shortly after with a similar plan.
“We have completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school food,” Primer said. The additional funding will also allow her to offer better, better quality food like fresh breads, produce and cheeses from local producers, she adds.
According to federal regulations, a family of four must earn less than $34,000 a year to qualify for free meals and $48,000 to qualify for reduced price meals. Limits change annually but are based on federal poverty measures that do not take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California.
“So it’s only for the poorest families, and not even all because some people either can’t sign up or are scared to sign up,” said Kat Taylor, a philanthropist and main sponsor of TomKat Farm and Literacy Center said. support California’s plan.
About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children in need of food assistance is much higher in a state with large income inequality. Disproportionately affected communities of color and immigrant communities in particular are afraid to apply because detailed forms raise confusing questions like their family income, Social Security number, and status immigration status of children.
Schools reported a drop in the proportion of families signing up for free and reduced-price meals during the Trump administration, which has tried to tighten immigration and public welfare policies.
Like school officials across the state, Primer has countless stories of kids who struggled to pay for school meals or were too embarrassed to eat free. There was a child whose mother called Primer, distraught because earning a few hundred dollars was too much to qualify; the father is in the country illegally and fears that filling out a free meal application could lead to his deportation; and there’s always a case where high school students don’t want their friends to know they need free food, so they stop eating.
When the pandemic hit, it changed everything – including the way school meals were served – and gave impetus to the universal program, which had unanimous bipartisan support. Lawmakers have previously only pursued targeted bills like reducing school lunch debt.
After schools closed in March 2020, many turned their parking lots into pick-up locations, and federal funding allows schools to provide meals to anyone. No applications, degrees and no questions asked.
The large voter turnout shows how dependent families are on meals.
Spokesman Shannon Haber said the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest school with 600,000 students, provides more than 400,000 meals a day. San Luis Coastal, with 7,500 students, was distributing 30,000 meals a week at the height of the pandemic, nearly triple the previous figure. The county includes the affluent city of San Luis Obispo and lower income areas.
“I think it’s been a pipe dream for a long time,” said Senator Nancy Skinner, a longtime campaigner for free global meals.
Backed by more than 200 organizations in a coalition called “Meals for All,” Skinner and other lawmakers pushed funding in the state budget, capturing momentum at a time when California cash in hand. The $262 billion budget provides $54 million for next school year, adding funding from the Biden administration through June 2022. California will then spend $650 million annually.
Skinner, a Democrat representing Berkeley, said: “If you’re a hungry kid, you’re not going to do well in school. “Why do we have to go through bureaucratic trouble to get a child to eat, when we can only have ordinary meals?”
Republicans on the Senate Education Committee support the plan as a way to help struggling families with the high cost of living in California. Senator Brian Dahle, a Republican from a large rural area of Northern California, said he watched kids at his children’s school steal leftovers when cafeteria workers Coffee does not look.
“For a lot of them, it’s their dinner and they sneak it or take it off someone’s plate when they haven’t finished it,” says Dahle.
Schools rarely turn away hungry children. But for the children who did not qualify and needed lunch, their parents were charged and many were saddled with huge debts. In recent years, some schools have threatened to keep students from graduating from middle or high school until lunch debts are paid, or hand stamps of students who owe money have been made. Jessica Bartholow, director of Skinner, who was previously an anti-famine advocate.
Some schools will hire debt collectors to collect parent debt, but at the end of the year, schools must use general fund dollars to pay off lunch program debts, she said.
For Tina Self, a mother of three, avoiding spending $3 on a school lunch every day would be a significant solution.
“It helps a lot, but it helps a lot,” said Self, who lives in San Luis Obispo, where a gallon of gas can cost as little as $5 a gallon.
“Lucky for us we both have jobs and we have two cars running,” she said of herself and her husband. “But we barely make it the way it is.”
Tony Wold, an associate superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School, says it’s time for lunch to be free.
“Just like you need to provide your students with textbooks and a calculator, there are some things you need to do. And this is one of them,” said Wold.
This story has been corrected to say that Kat Taylor is the main sponsor of the Literacy Center, not its co-founder.