When Erin Primer first heard the news that California was implementing a Universal Meal Program, she didn’t think it was true. For Primer, the director of food and nutrition services at San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) and a long-time advocate of universal meals, the announcement came as a colossal victory.
“It’s been something that we never thought was actually possible, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” Primer said. “It’s allowed me to be incredibly hopeful about school food.”
On July 9, 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Free School Meals for All Act, which pledges $650 million in ongoing funding to give about 6 million public school children in grades K-12 the option of receiving both a free breakfast and lunch every school day starting at the beginning of SY 2022-23. The bill was originally proposed by state Sen. Nancy Skinner and backed by a coalition of over 200 organizations.
The decision to implement universal free school meals is historic. Under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), students must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on household income level. The new bill, however, allows all children—regardless of eligibility—to receive food.
While talks regarding universal meals had been ongoing before the pandemic, it wasn’t until March 2020 that school educators and administration realized the categories surrounding income weren’t sufficient—suddenly, everyone was in need.
“It started very much out of this need to feed people during a time of scarcity and uncertainty, and it’s really allowed us to lean into our food values and express that in our entire program,” Primer said.
California’s decision has already inspired Maine to follow suit, indicating a more significant shift toward greater national food equity.
A more inclusive system
For the upcoming school year, a family of four in the contiguous states, territories, and Washington, D.C., qualifies for a free meal if they make an annual income of $36,075 and a reduced-price meal if they earn $51,338. Consequently, families that just miss the cut-off may still be struggling financially but would not be eligible for federal assistance; NSLP guidelines also do not take into account the cost of living, which varies from state to state.
In southern California, the new policy will ensure no children fall through the cracks. Menu Systems Development Dietitian for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) Melanie Moyer said of the 97,000 students in her district, 40,000 receive government assistance, with about 60% eligible for free or reduced price meals. Furthermore, there are about 7,000 unhoused students in her district, all of whom will now be able to receive meals without question.
Destigmatizing free food
Social stigma is another barrier that prevents many students from taking advantage of school meals.
Zack Castorina, a special education math resource provider at Equitas Academy 4 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, knows hungry students don’t learn as well as fed students do.
“Students continuously compare themselves to their peers in all forms and are aware of where they fall financially within their class,” he said. “By universalizing [meals], students and families feel no judgment in taking food they need.”
Destigmatizatizing school food also means prioritizing the dignity of those consuming it. To do this, Primer believes school districts should have food that is so good that everybody wants to eat it. And that’s what they’ve done.
During the pandemic, SLCUSD kept up with demand by distributing nearly 2,000 pantry-style boxes per week containing loaves of bread, blocks of local cheese, and various local produce. Similarly, SDUSD sources their dairy and bread locally and hosts “Harvest of the Month” to expose their students to foods they may otherwise not taste outside of school.
Narrowing racial and socioeconomic disparities
Food is a racial equity issue, demonstrated by the numbers revealing Black- and Latinx-headed households are nearly three times as likely to experience food insecurity as their white counterparts. This is significant since in California, 5.2% of enrolled students in 2020-21 identified as African American and 55.3% as Latinx.
At the school where Castorina teaches in Los Angeles, 95% of the student population is Latinx, and 92% qualified for free or reduced meals.
“[When I learned about the initiative], I was excited about how it can impact low-income families by taking [off] some of the financial burdens [of] feeding their children,” he said.
Whittier, California, resident and recent California High School graduate Jonathan Pilares ate free school meals along with his 9-year-old sister. He said that having a school lunch was financially helpful for his family in the long run. It also meant his mother would only have to cook once a day.
To Pilares, the bill will reduce barriers to access, ensuring more families are reached.
“Being from a Latino family and a heavily Latino populated area, I know many parents would struggle understanding the forms required by schools, even if they were in Spanish,” Pilares said. “This makes it easier for them to get food for their children without having to worry about the forms and hassle.”
Though by no means perfect in taste or quality, Pilares said he hopes this policy will benefit underprivileged students of all ethnicities in a similar way.
Toward a fuller future
Perusing the daily school newsletter, Moyer has already seen chatter about other states potentially adopting similar policies.
“I think that’s great, because California is not the only state with food insecure children,” she said.
One way to bring further awareness to the issue is through partnerships with state and nationwide legislators. Last fall, SLCUSD hosted state Sen. John Laird and U.S. House Rep. Salud Carbajal to eat a real school lunch and sit in their garden to see where the food is grown; First Partner of California Jennifer Siebel Newsom is also expected to visit in July. In Primer’s opinion, experiencing the food program firsthand will allow politicians to share these stories and find ways for states to jump on board.
“California’s leading the pack. It’s exciting,” she said.