Photo by CDC via Unsplash

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced via Twitter, on July 19, that the state would be providing free statewide lunches to every child in public school, regardless of their family’s income level.

The initiative is set to go into effect beginning in September.

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Currently, there are 6.2 million children enrolled in California public schools. Federal law states that a child may only qualify for free or reduced-price meals if their family earns less than $34,000 or $48,500 a year respectively. 

The income amount required for meal assistance is not only 130% below the poverty level for free lunches, but also 185% under for reduced-price lunches. These thresholds are adjusted annually based on federal poverty measures that don’t take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California. 

Under these stipulations, 60% of California students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but the percentage of children facing hunger is much higher.

Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, has experienced instances of parents distraught because they made a few hundred dollars over the threshold amount and therefore did not meet the qualifications to secure free meals for their child. 

Parents like these would be forced to pay for their children’s lunches, racking up large debts. At about $3 per lunch per day, expenses rise over the semesters, especially when more than one child is being schooled. 

Jessica Bartholow, chief of staff for Sen. Nancy Skinner, reported that some schools would bar students from graduating until lunch debts were paid off, or visibly stamp the hands of students who owed money.

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On the current food system, Kat Taylor, a philanthropist and major funder of the TomKat Ranch that backed California’s plan said, “It’s just for the most poor families, and not even all of them because some people failed to sign up or were fearful to sign up.”  

The stigma of accepting free food attached to this system further drove food-insecure families away from registering. High school students in particular were ashamed of their friends finding out they needed the free meals. Instead of risking being stamped or prohibited from graduating, and to avoid the shame of accepting free food, some would just not eat lunch at all.

Sen. Brian Dahle (R) reported seeing students steal leftover food from the cafeteria or their friends’ plates to take home to eat as dinner. 

Now, any child attending school in California has the option to accept free meals without the stigma attached. No longer is the disclosure of family income required, and the intrusive forms have been done away with. 

An unexpected budget surplus makes the entire program possible. Skinner and other lawmakers secured a $262 billion budget for the undertaking which will provide $54 million for the upcoming school year and supplement funding from the Biden administration through June 2022. Subsequently, California will spend $650 million annually on free meals. 

Primer states that the extra funding will allow for the provision of tastier, better quality food from local producers. 

A similar statewide universal meal program was previously considered too costly to implement. Free school meals for all have only been offered in major cities like Boston, Chicago and New York. However, shortly after California officially became the first state to adopt a universal program, Maine announced a similar plan.

School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations and parents are applauding the undertaking as a pioneering way to feed more hungry children more nutritious meals.

Scriberr News reached out to Gov. Newsom and the office of Sen. Skinner. Sen. Skinner was unavailable for comment but Robert Gammon of her PR team linked to this video.

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