With 1 in 6 children facing hunger in the United States, California is the first state to promise every public school student – all 6 million of them – free school meals.
The universal school meals program, which will launch in the 2022-2023 school year, is part of the landmark budget agreement between Governor Gavin Newsom and the legislature last month. Days later, Maine became the second state to commit to a universal school lunch program with the signing of its budget.
The program ensures that all students will be offered breakfast and lunch at their school, which Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley said, is “essential for learning.” Skinner led efforts to establish a universal school lunch program.
“We know that many California kids are food insecure and if you’re hungry you can’t learn well,” Skinner said. “The purpose of school is to learn, and whatever we can do to create an environment that allows children to thrive and learn is what we need to do.”
Skinner introduced a bill in March that would have established a universal school lunch program. After the program garnered bipartisan support and the California Department of Finance forecast surprisingly high projected revenues, lawmakers chose to include it in the state budget rather than as a separate bill.
The final deal between Newsom and the legislature provides $ 650 million through the Proposition 98 fund each year to reimburse school districts starting in 2022, as well as $ 54 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year to complete government meal reimbursements. Proposition 98 is the formula that determines how much of the general fund goes to community colleges and K-12 schools.
The state’s program is expected to begin in the 2022-23 school year, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already committed to paying for school meals for all students until the 2021- school year. 22.
USDA has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students since the start of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, districts were reimbursed only to feed students enrolled in the national school meals program. Advocates said being able to feed students without having to verify if they were eligible for free lunches enabled districts to serve more families at a time when many faced hunger and hardship.
The lifting of eligibility requirements has allowed the Oakland Unified School District, for example, to distribute up to 18,000 take-out meals a day during the pandemic, spokesman John Sasaki said.
“It just shows the need that was there,” Sasaki said.
Previously, as part of the National School Meals Program application process, families were required to disclose their household income, the number of people living in the household, their children’s immigration status, or whether their children were homeless. or running away. Some families were afraid to divulge this information, and students may have felt embarrassed about receiving a free lunch while others paid for it.
Schools in New York City began serving free meals to all students in 2017 after finding that some students would rather be hungry than admit they didn’t have enough money to pay for lunch. The move follows a nationwide outcry over the “lunch humiliation” – public shame on students for unpaid school lunch bills, or even school staff throwing their lunches away rather than allowing them to eat.
Advocates believed that while 3.9 million students – 63% of California’s student body – participated in the program, the need was actually much higher.
“It’s such good news that everyone gets food without any strings attached, but being able to do it so that no one is called out is the best thing about it,” Sasaki said. “We want to make sure that children never have a hard time being who they are or being in the situation they find themselves in. “
However, districts will still require families to complete household income eligibility forms. That’s because the number of families in the district earning so little that they qualify for the federal free and low cost lunch program remains a key factor in the state’s local control funding formula. The formula grants additional public funds to districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners, foster children and homeless youth they serve.
Tony Wold, the associate superintendent of business services at West Contra Costa Unified, said the district feared fewer families would fill out household income eligibility forms because they did not have to do so to receive benefits. free meals. This could potentially have led to a reduction in additional funds for the cash-strapped district. To help resolve the issue, the district asked outreach workers to call families directly, explaining why it was important for families to submit the information.
The “big lift” of outreach workers allowed more families to fill out forms than the previous year, Wold said, keeping the district’s percentage of non-duplicate students constant. This statistic measures the share of students in a district who are low-income, homeless, young in foster care, or English learners – all of which are behind the local control funding formula.
Oakland Unified outreach workers focus on families who are skeptical of the forms they determine how much money goes to the classroom, Sasaki said.
California School Boards Association spokesperson Troy Flint said the organization predicts it will be more difficult for districts to collect income eligibility forms with the new universal meals program. The association hopes the state will give some support to schools’ “diligent and creative efforts” to collect the forms, though the group is not calling for any specific changes.
“This administration has prioritized allocating extra money to high need students, especially in Concentration Grants, so there is reason to believe they might be willing to work on a modification here. “said Flint.
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