Damian Dovarganes / AP
SAN FRANCISCO – When California classrooms reopen for the fall semester, all 6.2 million public school students will have free school meals regardless of their family’s income.
The company, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus, will be the largest free student lunch program in the country. School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations, and parents are hailing it as a groundbreaking way to break the stigma of free lunch and feed more hungry children.
“It’s so historic. It’s more than life-changing,” said Erin Primer, hospitality director for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District on California’s central coast.
Several U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago, are already offering free school meals for everyone. But until recently, nationwide universal meal programs were considered too expensive and unrealistic. California was the first state to adopt a universal program late last month, and Maine followed shortly after with a similar plan.
“We have completely leveled the playing field in terms of school lunches,” said Primer. The additional funding will also enable it to offer tastier, higher quality foods such as fresh bread, produce and cheese from local producers, she said.
That’s what it takes to qualify
Under federal regulations, a family of four must earn less than $ 34,000 per year to qualify for free meals and $ 48,000 per year to qualify for discounted meals. The caps shift annually, but are based on federal poverty policies that ignore California’s high cost of living and taxes.
“So it’s only for the poorest families, and not even for everyone, because some people didn’t sign up or were afraid to sign up,” said Kat Taylor, a philanthropist and major funder of the Center for Ecoliteracy and TomKat Ranch-sponsored California’s plan .
About 60% of California undergraduates qualify, but experts say the number of children in need of food aid is much higher in a state with large income inequality. Colored communities are disproportionately affected and immigrant communities in particular are afraid of applying because of detailed forms that ask intrusive questions such as family income, social security number and children’s immigration status.
Schools reported that during the Trump administration, which sought to tighten immigration policies and public benefits, a declining percentage of families applied for free and discounted meals.
Like school officials across the state, Primer has countless stories of children who struggled to pay for school meals or were ashamed to eat for free. The kid whose mother called Primer was desperate because she was making a few hundred dollars too much to qualify; the father, who is illegally in the country and feared that filling out the free meal application could lead to deportation; and constant cases of high schoolers not wanting their friends to know they need free food, so skip the food.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
COVID affected how students could have lunch
When the pandemic broke out, it changed everything – including the way school meals were served – and gave impetus to the universal program, which received non-partisan, unanimous support. The legislature had previously only pursued targeted bills such as debt relief for school lunches.
After schools closed in March 2020, many turned their parking lots into pickup locations, and federal funding allowed schools to offer meals to everyone. No applications, qualifications and no questions were asked.
The large number of participants showed how much families depend on meals.
Los Angeles’ Unified School District, the largest in the state with 600,000 students, served more than 400,000 meals a day, said spokeswoman Shannon Haber. San Luis Coastal, with 7,500 students, was serving 30,000 meals a week at the height of the pandemic, nearly three times what it was before. The district includes the affluent city of San Luis Obispo and low-income areas.
“I thought it was a pipe dream for a long time,” said Senator Nancy Skinner, a longtime proponent of universal free meals.
Backed by over 200 organizations in a coalition called School Meals For All, Skinner and other lawmakers pushed for budget funding, capitalizing on the momentum at a time when California is overflowing with cash. The budget of $ 262 billion provides for $ 54 million for the coming school year and complements funding from the Biden government through June 2022. After that, California will spend $ 650 million annually.
“If you’re a hungry kid, you’re not going to study well,” said Skinner, a Democrat who represents Berkeley. “Why should we go through the bureaucratic effort to feed a child when we could only get universal meals?”
California’s plan was supported by both parties
The Republicans on the Senate Education Committee supported the plan to help families struggling with the high cost of living in California. Senator Brian Dahle, a Republican from a largely rural area in Northern California, said he saw children steal leftover food at his children’s school when canteen workers were not looking.
“For a lot of them that was their dinner and they smuggled it or took it off someone’s plate when they weren’t eating it,” said Dahle.
Schools rarely turn away hungry children. But for children who did not qualify and needed lunch, their parents were billed and many ran into huge debts. In recent years, some schools have threatened not to allow students to graduate from middle or high school until lunch debts are paid or the hands of students who owe money are stamped, Skinner chief of staff Jessica Bartholow said was previously an anti-hunger lawyer.
Some schools would hire debt collectors to prosecute the parents, but at the end of the year schools will have to use general fund money to pay off the lunchtime program debts, she said.
For Tina Self, a mother of three, it will be a tremendous relief to avoid the $ 3 daily lunch cost.
“It might seem a little bit, but it helps a lot,” said Self, who lives in San Luis Obispo, where a gallon of gasoline can be just under $ 5 a gallon and the rent is “insane.”
“Fortunately, we both have a job and two running cars,” she said of herself and her husband. “But we hardly do it the way it is.”
Tony Wold, assistant superintendent of West Contra Costa Unified School, says it is time lunch was free.
“Just as you need to provide textbooks and a computer to students, there are certain things you need to do. And this is one of them, ”said Wold.