California and Maine Are Implementing Universal Meal Programs for All Children

When Erin Primer first heard the news that California was implementing a Universal Meal Program, she didn’t think it was true. Primer, who is the director of food & nutrition services at San Luis Coastal Unified Schools District (SLCUSD), and a long-time champion of universal meals, saw the announcement as a huge victory.

“It’s been something that we never thought was actually possible, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” Primer said. “It’s allowed me to be incredibly hopeful about school food.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law Free School Meals for All ActWhich promises $650 millionThe ongoing funding will allow approximately 6 million children in grades K-12 to have the option of getting a free breakfast and lunch each school day beginning in the SY 2022-223. The bill was first proposed by Nancy Skinner, state senator. It was supported by a coalition of over 200 organizations.

Historic is the decision to provide universal free school meals. The following is the National School Lunch Program(NSLP) Students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals based on their household income. The new bill, however, allows all children — regardless of eligibility — to receive food.

While talks regarding universal meals had been ongoing before the pandemic, it wasn’t until March 2020 that school educators and administration realized the categories surrounding income weren’t sufficient — suddenly, everyone was in need.

“It started very much out of this need to feed people during a time of scarcity and uncertainty, and it’s really allowed us to lean into our food values and express that in our entire program,” Primer said.

California’s decision has already inspired Maine to follow suitindicating a greater shift towards greater national food equality

A More Inclusive Program

A family of four living in the contiguous territories, states, and Washington, D.C. is eligible to enroll for the next school year. qualifies for a free mealIf they have an annual income of $36,075, they will be eligible for a reduced-price meal or a reduced-price meal if their earnings are $51,338. Families that miss the cut-off could still be in financial trouble but would not be eligible to federal assistance. The NSLP guidelines do not account for the cost of living which varies from one state to the next.

The new policy in Southern California will ensure that no child falls through the cracks. Melanie Moyer, Menu Systems Development Dietitian at the San Diego Unified Schools District (SDUSD), stated that of the 97,000 students in her school district, 40,000 receive assistance from the government. 60% eligibleYou can get free or reduced-price meals There are also about 7,000 unhoused studentsAll residents of her district will be able receive meals without any questions.

Destigmatizing Free Food

Many students are prevented from taking advantage school meals because of social stigma.

Zack Castorina, a special education math resource provider at Equitas Academy 4 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, knows hungry students don’t learn as well as fed students do.

“Students continuously compare themselves to their peers in all forms and are aware of where they fall financially within their class,” he said. “By universalizing [meals], students and families feel no judgment in taking food they need.”

The dignity of those who consume school food must be de-stigmatized. Primer believes that school districts should have food so delicious that everyone wants to eat it. And that’s what they’ve done.

SLCUSD distributed almost 2,000 pantry-style boxes per semaine during the pandemic. These boxes contained loaves and blocks of local cheese as well as various local produce. Similarly, SDUSD sources their dairy and bread locally and hosts “Harvest of the Month” to expose their students to foods they may otherwise not taste outside of school.

Reducing Racial and Socioeconomic Inequalities

Food is a racial equity issue. This is evident by the numbers showing that Black- and Latinx-headed households are almost three times as likelyto experience the same level of food insecurity as their white counterparts. This is important since in CaliforniaIn 2020-21, 5.2% enrolled students identified as African American, and 55.3% as Latinx.

Castorina teaches at the Los Angeles school where 95% of the students are student populationLatinx, 92% of which are eligible for free or reduced meals

“[When I learned about the initiative]I was thrilled to see the potential impact on low-income families through taking [off]Some of the financial worries [of] feeding their children,” he said.

Jonathan Pilares, a Whittier, California resident, and recent California High School Graduate, enjoyed free school meals with his 9-year old sister. He said that having school lunch was financially beneficial for his family. His mother would also be able to cook only once a day.

Pilares said that the bill will lower access barriers and allow more families to be reached.

“Being from a Latino family and a heavily Latino populated area, I know many parents would struggle understanding the forms required by schools, even if they were in Spanish,” Pilares said. “This makes it easier for them to get food for their children without having to worry about the forms and hassle.”

Pilares acknowledged that the policy isn’t perfect, but he hopes it will help underprivileged students of any ethnicity in a similar fashion.

Achieving a Fuller Future

Moyer noticed chatter about similar policies being adopted by other states as he perused the daily school newsletter.

“I think that’s great, because California is not the only state with food insecure children,” she said.

Partnerships with legislators from across the country and state are one way to raise awareness. SLCUSD hosted John Laird (State Senator) and Salud Carbajal (U.S. House Rep). They ate a real school lunch, and then sat in the garden to see how the food was grown. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, First Partners of California, is expected to visit SLCUSD in July. In Primer’s opinion, experiencing the food program firsthand will allow politicians to share these stories and find ways for states to jump on board.

“California’s leading the pack. It’s exciting,” she said.

PrismThis newsroom is independent and non-profit, and is run by journalists of color. We report from the ground up, and at the intersections between injustice and justice.