California to provide free school meals for all

Most Tulare County schools have offered free school meals for several years, announcement could mean more money to expand nutrition services locally

SACRAMENTO – When local students return to school next month they won’t have to pay for a meal following California’s announcement as the first state in the nation to permanently adopt free school meals for all K-12 students. Touted as the largest school lunch program ever, the announcement was part of an agreement the governor and legislature reached during 2021-22 budget talks  originally introduced as Senate Bill 364. The inclusion of the new program in the state budget will reduce child hunger for the state’s 6.2 million children, support essential school nutrition workers, and bolster the state’s agricultural sector.

“I’m especially proud that SB 364, Free School Meals for All, jump started this landmark initiative,” said Senate Budget Committee Chair Nancy Skinner, who introduced the ‘Free School Meals for All Act of 2021’. “It’s based on a simple and powerful premise: Universal schools, universal meals.”

Local school officials are less sure about its impact on Tulare County. Three quarters of local students already qualify for free and reduced priced meals and many more may receive them because the percentages at more than half of Tulare County schools are so high. Twenty-five of the Tulare County’s 45 school districts qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which allows districts to be reimbursed for ever child served, regardless of income, because at least 75% of their students are income eligible to receive the meals. 

Unified school districts, including Porterville, Cutler-Orosi, Lindsay, Farmersville and Woodlake all said they have been providing free lunches to any student for several years.

“Woodlake Unified has offered 100% free lunches for years,” Woodlake Unified Superintendent Laura Gonzalez said. “This doesn’t impact us.”

Exeter Unified Superintendent George Eddy said his district may be one of the few whose families will notice a change. Eddy said Exeter did not participate in any USDA child nutrition programs prior to the pandemic and has always based its free meals on a student’s income eligibility. He said the state’s announcement of universal school means could mean families on the edge of the income guidelines may now receive a free breakfast and lunch, possibly increasing school meal participation by 10-15%. Currently about two-thirds of Exeter students qualify.

“While all of the details for how we are going to get reimbursed have not been finalized, the ability to feed all students so they are ready to learn is a win for our families,” Eddy said.

Eddy said the additional funds would allow Exeter Unified’s Nutrition Services to increase meal quality, upgrades its kitchen facilities, and more fully reimburse the program for the additional requirements child nutrition programs are required to follow.

Jason Pommier, public information officer for Porterville Unified, said the governor has set aside $150 million for improvements to infrastructure including $30 million for staff training. He also agreed his district could use the additional funding to make improvements to its central kitchen.

Regina Ocampo, Visalia Unified’s director of nutrition services, said 41 of the district’s 47 sites already qualify for universal free meals under the community eligibility provision, and all of its sites would have been eligible for the provision through June 2022 as part of a waiver currently offered by USDA. Ocampo said it is unclear if the new law will result in any additional funding for the schools but said nutrition services would be the only eligible place to spend those funds for things including food, supplies, equipment, facilities and staff.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that have enabled schools to provide free meals to all students during the pandemic are set to expire at the end of the 2021–22 school year, at which point California’s public schools will be reimbursed for providing universal school meals. Nearly 60% of all students in the state—more than 3.6 million California students—qualified for free or reduced-price meals in the 2019–20 school year.

The $262 billion budget provides $54 million for the coming school year, supplementing federal funding through June 2022. Starting in the 2022-23 school year, California will spend $650 million annually to provide free school meals to all public school students.

The bill was supported by Free School Meals for All, a coalition of 30 state legislators and more than 200 organizations representing health, education, labor, agriculture, and food banks. Co-sponsors of SB 364 are Kat Taylor, TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, Center for Ecoliteracy, NextGen California, California Association of Food Banks, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

“California has made history,” said Kat Taylor, co-founder of the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation. “Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and make sure our school administrators, food service workers, and farmers have what they need to provide free, healthy, locally-grown school meals to all students.”

The coalition argues fully implementing universal free meals is especially important for families who fall through the cracks in the current system: eligible families concerned that submitting required paperwork could affect their immigration status, families of four that make more than $48,470 per year and still go hungry, and eligible students who don’t participate because of the stigma that can be associated with free school meals.

While many local students may have access to free meals, that doesn’t mean all of them are taking advantage of it. Two million California children live in low-income households affected by food insecurity, a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life, according to California Food Policy Advocates. The group estimates about half of the children in Tulare County, about 47,000, were affected by food insecurity in 2019, the most recent data available.

“California continued its legacy of creating progressive change with this historic budget investment in healthy school meals,” said Tiffany Germain, Research and Policy Advisor at NextGen California. “Providing healthy, freshly prepared, free school meals for every student will ensure equity and help end ‘lunch shaming’ practices that can lead to bullying and students skipping lunch altogether.”

The need for free meals is apparent in the number of families that pick up food at schools and food banks. From March to December 2020, California public schools served more than 450 million free school meals, providing families with an essential resource during the pandemic-related school closures. In April 2020 alone, California food banks distributed food to more than 1.5 million households—about 4.5 million people—feeding 62% of the total number of individuals served in all of 2019. Right now, nearly 20% of all California households—and 27.3% of Latinx households with children and 35.5% of Black households with children—report food insecurity. This is double pre-pandemic rates, impacting about 8 million Californians.

“This is a transformational moment in California’s march toward a hunger-free future for our children. Hungry children cannot learn, and must be provided the nutrition they need to fuel their learning, grow into healthy adults, and fulfill their potential,” said Andrew Cheyne, Director of Government Affairs for the California Association of Food Banks. “Now, we call on our federal legislators, President Biden, and Vice President Harris to enact healthy school meals for all children across the county—to truly invest in the future of our kids and our nation.”

School meals are the healthiest source of meals for American children, according to a study from Tufts University, and a body of evidence shows students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved attendance, behavior, and academic achievement as well as decreased tardiness.

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