California Develops Largest School Meal Program in the U.S.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides an average of 20.1 million free lunches and 1.7 million reduced price lunches to school-aged children each day in the U.S. Though this program is essential to many families, especially low-income families, a stigma remains attached to free or reduced-price lunches. The income requirements that determine if a child is eligible for the NSLP often lead to children feeling ostracized from their more affluent classmates. Often times, schools will separate lunch lines into those paying for their meals and those receiving a free meal. If that divide wasn’t clear enough, other schools go a step further, offering more desirable upgrades like french fries and cheeseburgers to students who could pay for the “better meal.”

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“In elementary school, nobody cared. It was just assumed we all got free lunch, and I don’t think anybody thought about it any other way,” explained Adrian Brooks, a ninth-grade English language arts teacher in the North Bronx, and former student of the free-lunch program. “The dynamic starts to shift when you go from middle school to high school, and you get into these sort of social hierarchies.” California has recognized this stigma, and the patterns that lead children in need of the program to skip lunch all together to avoid feeling like an outsider. That’s why they are starting the largest free school lunch program in the U.S. to date.

Starting this fall 2021, as schools in California finally reopen after the coronavirus pandemic forced their doors closed, all 6.2 million public school students will be able to eat school meals for free, regardless of their household income. Though several cities including New York, Boston and Chicago already provide free school meals for all of their students, this expansive program was consider too pricey to develop on a state-wide scale. However, an unexpected budget surplus made it possible in California, and Maine followed shortly after with a similar program.

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“This is so historic. It’s beyond life-changing,” said director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Erin Primer. “We’ve completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school food.” The additional funding will allow public schools to offer more desirable, fresher and healthier food including fresh bread, produce from local farms, and cheese.

The federal school lunch program requires a family’s income be below a certain threshold in order to qualify for a free or reduced lunch. However, this blanket cap cannot be applied fairly to each state due to extreme variants in cost of living, especially in California. Further, in order to prove your family qualifies for the program, parents are required to fill out in-depth forms that asks intrusive questions regarding income, Social Security, and immigration status. Therefore, though communities of color and immigrant communities are disproportionately affected by the wealth gap, many families are fearful of applying and providing that information. Schools reported an even sharper decline in the percentage of families applying for the lunch programs during the Trump administration.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Stanislaw Mikulski

When schools were forced to shutdown in March of 2020, the school meal programs had to adjust their process in order to continue to serve their communities. Many schools created meal pick-up areas in parking lots, receiving federal funding to offer meals to anyone without the need for applications, qualifications, or income requirements. This unexpected situation shone a light on how many additional families needed the meal program, with many schools in California seeing their number of participants double and triple from previous years.

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