Free school lunches for all students, as California revs up the country’s first Universal Meals program.

According to experts, 1 out of every 5 Californians is food-insecure, meaning that on a regular basis, they don’t know if they’ll be able to feed themselves or their family through a given week. Children are disproportionately represented in this statistic. Schools have always known that for many of their students, a school lunch is the most reliable nutrition available. It’s only gotten worse over the past year, with grocery-story inflation wildly outstripping wages.

During the pandemic, school closures threatened many children with the loss of that reliability. That’s why two of the federal pandemic aid packages included money for schools to ship out daily food for every student, supplementing state aid. It proved it was possible, and that it was a pure benefit to students.

California’s Universal Meals program makes a basic lunch available for free to students in any grade at any income level.

Free school lunches have always been available to low-income students, but it depended upon their parents applying for it, and often carried a stigma, a public announcement of poverty. Now, everyone qualifies.

The program is state and federally funded, and comes as part of Assembly Bill 130, signed into law by Governor Newsom last July. AB 130 is an education budget omnibus bill that also covers independent study, benefits for homeless youths and children in foster care, and a $1.5 billion fund for grants to further professional development in educators. Among other things.

Extra funding is included in the bill to improve the variety and nutritional value of these lunches, including vegetarian options. The whole program is estimated to cost approximately $650 million each year to feed California’s approximately 6 million schoolchildren, or approximately $0.60 per student per day. It also includes an additional $54 million for the 2022-23 school year for infrastructure improvements.

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