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“It’s very historic. It’s beyond life-changing,” said Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District on California’s central coast.
Several US cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already offer free school meals for all. But until recently, statewide universal food programs were considered too expensive and unrealistic. California became the first state to adopt a universal program late last month, and Maine followed shortly after with a similar plan.
“We’ve completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school meals,” said Primer. He said the additional funding would allow them to offer tastier, better quality food such as fresh bread, produce and cheese from local producers.
Under federal rules, a family of four must make less than $34,000 per year to qualify for a free meal and less than $48,000 to qualify for a reduced-price meal. Caps change annually but are based on federal poverty measures that do not take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California.
“So it’s just for the poorest families, and not all of them either because some people failed to sign up or were afraid to sign up,” said Kat Taylor, a philanthropist and co-author of the Center for Ecoliteracy and Tomcat Ranch. – said the founder. who supported the California plan.
About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children in need of food aid is much higher in a state with huge income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected and immigrant communities in particular are afraid to apply because of the elaborate forms that ask intrusive questions such as their family income, Social Security numbers and the immigration status of children.
Schools reported a declining percentage of families applying for free and reduced-price meals during the Trump administration, which attempted to tighten immigration policies and public benefits.
Like school officials across the state, Primer has countless tales of children who struggled to pay for school meals or were too embarrassed to eat for free. There was a child whose mother, called Primer, was distraught because she had earned a few hundred dollars too much to qualify; father who is in the country illegally and fears that filling out a free meal application may result in deportation; And frequent cases of high school students not wanting friends to know they need free meals, so they give up eating.
When the pandemic hit, it changed everything – including how school meals were served – and provided an impetus for the Universal Program, with bipartisan, unanimous support. Lawmakers previously only pursued targeted bills such as easing school lunch loans.
After schools closed in March 2020, many people turned their parking lots into pickup sites, and federal funding allowed schools to deliver meals to anyone. No application, qualification and no questions asked.
The mass polling showed how much families rely on food.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest with 600,000 students, serves more than 400,000 meals a day, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said. The San Luis Coastal, with 7,500 students, delivered 30,000 meals a week at the peak of the pandemic, nearly triple the number before. The district includes the wealthy city and low-income areas of San Luis Obispo.
“I thought it was a pipe dream for a long time,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner, a longtime advocate for universal free food.
Backed by more than 200 organizations in a coalition called “School Meals for All,” Skinner and other lawmakers pushed for funding to the state budget, seizing momentum at a time when California was full of cash. The $262 billion budget provides $54 million for the coming school year, supplemented by funding from the Biden administration until June 2022. After that, California will spend $650 million annually.
“If you’re a hungry kid, you’re not going to learn well,” said Skinner, a Democrat who represented Berkeley. “Why do we have to go through bureaucratic trouble to feed a child, when we could just have universal food?”
Senate Education Committee Republicans endorsed the plan as a way to help families struggling with California’s high cost of living. Brian Dahle, a Republican from a large rural area in northern California, said he had seen children steal leftover food at his children’s school when cafeteria workers were not watching.
“For a lot of them it was their dinner and they weren’t finishing it or taking it off someone’s plate,” Dahle said.
Schools rarely turn away hungry children. But children who did not qualify and needed lunch, their parents were billed and many took on huge debts. Skinner’s chief of staff, Jessica Bartholo, said that in recent years some schools have threatened to let students graduate from middle or high school until lunch loans are paid off, or that money lenders The hands of the students are not stamped, who were earlier anti-hunger advocates.
She said some schools hire loan takers to hold on to parents, but at the end of the year schools have to use normal fund dollars to pay off lunch program loans.
For Tina Self, a mother of three, it would be a huge relief to avoid spending $3 a day on school lunches.
“It may sound a bit much, but it helps a lot,” said Self, who lives in San Luis Obispo, where a gallon of gas can cost just $5 a gallon and the rent is “crazy.”
“Lucky for both of us we both have jobs and we have two moving cars,” she said of herself and her husband. “But we’re barely making it the way it is.”
Tony Wald, an associate superintendent at the West Contra Costa Unified School, says it’s about time lunch was free.
“Just like you need to give students textbooks and a computer, there are a few things you need to do. And this is one of them,” Wold said.