Dewan: Are universal school meals coming to California schools?
Workers prepare to offer free lunch for Oak Grove High School, ESUHSD students.

One in every 6 children face hunger in the U.S, according to Feeding America.org.

Far too many children and youth experience food insecurity in Santa Clara County. Hunger negatively impacts the physical, behavioral and academic development of children. All children deserve access to healthy food every day and offering students meals at no cost to them is one of the most important ways to guarantee that students receive the healthy meals they need.

The U.S. Department Of Agriculture (USDA) reimbursed school districts for providing free meals to all students since the start of the pandemic. Schools were not required to check whether students qualified for free lunches and that allowed more families access to nutritious meals through their school community at a time when many were facing uncertainty and hardships.

Before the pandemic, school districts could only receive reimbursement for the meals provided to students who were eligible for a Free or Reduced Priced Meal (FRPM) under the National School Lunch Program.

Building upon the learnings and successes of school meal programs during the pandemic, California plans to launch a universal school meals program in the 2022-2023 school year. The program could guarantee that all students would be offered breakfast and lunch at their school. That guarantee would mean that schools could be required to provide two meals free of charge during each school day to all TK-12 students requesting a meal, regardless of FRPM eligibility. The schools would not be able to charge any amount to youth who request a meal.

There are many benefits of offering universal free meals.

Universal access can go a long way to reducing or eliminating stigma, shaming and bullying as the financial barrier of paying for school meals is eliminated. These programs reduce the amount of paperwork that school nutrition staff are required to complete and can also lead to more efficient school meal service operations. And, since no students would be turned away, it would lessen or eliminate unpaid meal debts owed to schools and reduce food waste.

The state has committed $650 million through the Proposition 98 fund each year to reimburse school districts starting in 2022 and another $54 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year to supplement state meal reimbursements. Proposition 98 is the funding calculation used to allocate a portion of the state’s general fund for K-12 schools and community colleges. Before the planned universal school meals program can become a reality, the state will need to appropriate the promised funds into the 2022-2023 budget.

If Congress takes action to implement a universal school meals program, it will make the program even more affordable for California schools.

For now, schools will still need to ask families to complete the National School Lunch Program household income eligibility application forms. The number of families eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program is a component of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

The LCFF allocates additional state dollars to school districts based on the number of enrolled students in certain student groups, such as youth in foster care and youth who are housing insecure. These additional dollars are used to fund essential educational programs.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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