Damien Dovarganes / AP
SAN FRANCISCO – When classrooms in California reopen for the fall term, 6.2 million public school students will have the opportunity to eat free school meals, regardless of their family’s income.
The company, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus, will be the largest free student meal program in the country. School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations and parents are applauding it as an innovative way to prevent the stigma of accepting free meals and feeding more hungry children.
“It’s so historic. It’s beyond life changing,” said Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coast Unified School District on California’s central coast.
Several American cities including New York, Boston and Chicago already offer free school meals for everyone. But until recently, statewide universal meal programs were seen as too expensive and unrealistic. California became the first state to adopt a universal program late last month, and Maine followed shortly thereafter with a similar plan.
“We have completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school meals,” Primer said. The additional funding will also allow her to offer tastier and better quality foods such as fresh bread, produce and cheese from local producers, she said.
This is what it takes to qualify
Under federal rules, a family of four must earn less than $ 34,000 per year to be entitled to free meals and $ 48,000 to be entitled to reduced meals. The caps change every year, but are based on federal poverty measures that ignore the cost of living and high taxes in California.
“So it’s fair to the poorest families, and not even all because some people either failed to register or were afraid to register,” said Kat Taylor, philanthropist and main funder of funds from the Center for Ecoliteracy and the TomKat Ranch which supported the California plan.
About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children needing food assistance is much higher in a state with significant income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected and immigrant communities in particular are afraid to apply due to detailed forms that ask intrusive questions such as family income, social security number, and children’s immigration status.
Schools have reported a declining percentage of families asking for free and discounted meals during the Trump administration, which attempted to tighten immigration policies and public benefits.
Like school officials statewide, Primer has countless stories of kids who struggled to afford school meals or were too ashamed to eat for free. There was the child whose mother was called Primer, distraught because she was making a few hundred dollars too much to qualify; the father who is illegally in the country and fears that filling out the free meal request could cause him to be deported; and constant cases of high school kids not wanting their friends to know they need free food, so they skip eating.
Damien Dovarganes / AP
COVID affected the way students could have lunch
When the pandemic struck, it changed everything – including the way school meals were served – and gave impetus to the Universal Agenda, which enjoyed bipartisan and unanimous support. Previously, lawmakers had only pursued targeted bills such as school meal debt relief.
After schools closed in March 2020, many turned their parking lots into pickup sites, and federal funding allowed schools to provide meals to anyone. There were no applications, no qualifications and no questions asked.
The massive turnout showed how much families rely on meals.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest with 600,000 students, distributed more than 400,000 meals a day, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said. San Luis Coastal, with 7,500 students, distributed 30,000 meals a week at the height of the pandemic, nearly triple the previous number. The neighborhood includes the wealthy town 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 advocate for universal free meals.
Supported by more than 200 organizations in a coalition called “School Meals for All,” Skinner and other lawmakers pushed for funding in the state budget, seizing momentum at a time when California is full of money. The $ 262 billion budget provides $ 54 million for the upcoming school year, supplementing the Biden administration’s funding through June 2022. After that, California will spend $ 650 million per year.
“If you’re a starving kid, you’re not going to learn well,” said Skinner, a Democrat representing Berkeley. “Why would we have to go through bureaucratic hassles to feed a child when we could just have universal meals? “
The California plan had bipartisan support
Republicans on the Senate Education Committee backed the plan as a way to help families struggling with the high cost of living in California. Senator Brian Dahle, a Republican from a largely rural area of northern California, said he saw children from his children’s school steal leftover food when cafeteria workers were not watching not.
“For a lot of them, it was their dinner and they’d sneak it up or take it off someone’s plate when they didn’t finish it,” Dahle said.
Schools rarely turn away starving children. But for the children who did not qualify and needed lunch, their parents were billed and many of them ran into huge debt. In recent years, some schools have threatened not to let students graduate from high school until lunch debts are paid, or have stamped the hands of students who owed money, Jessica said. Bartholow, Skinner’s chief of staff, who was previously an activist against hunger.
Some schools would hire debt collectors to hunt down parents, but at the end of the year, schools must use general funds to pay off meal program debts, she said.
For Tina Self, a mother of three, avoiding the cost of school meals of $ 3 each day will be a huge relief.
“It might sound like a bit, but it helps a lot,” said Self, who lives in San Luis Obispo where a gallon of gas can cost just under $ 5 a gallon and the rent is “crazy”.
“Lucky for us, we both have jobs and we have two running cars,” she said of herself and her husband. “But we hardly do it as it is.”
Tony Wold, an associate superintendent at West Contra Costa Unified School, says it’s time for the lunches to be free.
“Just like you have to give the students textbooks and a computer, there are certain things you have to do. And this is one of them,” Wold said.