What you need to know about the free school meals program in California


Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, recalled a single mother who made $ 50,000 a year by calling her, begging her to join the program.

“I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, but you don’t qualify,’ and I remember her crying,” Primer told me.

California’s expanded free lunch program doesn’t technically start until next school year, but it’s already fundamentally in effect because of the pandemic. When schools closed last year, the federal government provided funds to provide free meals to all students to facilitate access for children in need.

Primer told me that the number of kids picking up school lunch has more than doubled in some schools in his district. She said it was most likely because of the newly eligible students and those who still qualified but did not take advantage.

Before the policy change, children may have felt uncomfortable or ashamed about picking up lunch at school because of what it said about their family’s income. For high school kids, it might not be the cool thing to do when richer classmates wanted to eat off campus.

Families also felt the stigma. Some had hesitated to complete the necessary paperwork because they did not want to depend on government benefits. Others were concerned about having to disclose their immigration status, although this is not the case.

By providing free meals for all, no questions asked, these roadblocks are being eliminated.

Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition services at the Palm Springs Unified School District, told me that when her school started offering a free lunch, the school nurse noticed a change: fewer students came to headaches and nausea, which had apparently been caused by skipping meals.

There is plenty of research showing that breakfast and lunch are linked to reduced nurse visits, better attendance, and better test scores. Not to mention that children who do not eat tend to distract the rest of the class, affecting the learning experiences of others as well.


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