California Becomes First State to Provide Free Meals to Public School Kids
With rising costs of food and inflation, this program comes at a time when families need help.
The new school year has started, and for students in California, breakfast and lunch will be an easy choice — whatever is on the school cafeteria menu. While the federal program that offered free breakfast and lunch to all students during Covid has ended across the country, California has passed a law to continue giving free meals to all students in public schools under the Universal Meals Program.
The new law is part of Assembly Bill 130 and was signed into law by Governor Newsom in July. The law states that all kindergarten through 12th grade public school students will be provided two free meals — breakfast and lunch — during each school day, regardless of the income of the student’s parents or guardians. In addition to the meals, the bill also forgives any lunch debts for previous outstanding balances that students may have from previous school years.
According to Feeding America, a nonprofit that runs hundreds of food banks nationwide, an estimated 13 million children — 1 in 6 kids in America — likely experienced food insecurity sometime in 2021. With rising costs of food because of inflation, this program ensures that kids will have two meals a day and won’t need to worry about where their next meal will come from.
"Building on the historic budget investments for our California students and schools, Universal Meals is one of seven key pillars for transforming schools designed to help students heal, recover, and thrive while maximizing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to break the cycle of educational inequity, including nutrition insecurity," said Nicholas Filipas, spokesperson for the California Department of Education, in an interview with ABC News.
Officials say that more than 5.8 million school-aged kids will benefit from this program. "We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you're hungry you cannot learn well," state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who helped to spearhead the program, tells EdSource.
Students will not need to fill out applications for the free meals and they are still able to bring food from home on any given day. For many parents, the free breakfast and lunch will not only help save money on food costs and lunch box supplies, but also save time in the mornings.
School cafeterias in California are also getting an upgrade to help with the increase of students who will be receiving meals at school. The law also provides $150 million to support cafeteria infrastructure upgrades and nutrition-related staff training for the school districts.
After the news of the bill passing in California, other states are considering similar measures for their students. Maine, for instance, is working on their own plan.
"Maine children should be able to focus on learning math and playing with their friends, not an empty stomach. By providing free, nutritious school meals, no questions asked, we can ensure Maine kids can focus on being kids," Maine Senate President Troy Jackson said in a statement. "No child should have to go to school hungry, especially not in this state."
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