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California to begin offering free meals in all public schools this year

The state is the first in the country to launch a Universal Meals program, allowing students to eat breakfast and lunch for free regardless of income status.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California schools are officially implementing a program that provides free meals to all students across the state starting in the 2022-23 school year.

The California Universal Meals program allows for district nutrition programs to receive the necessary funding to provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students, regardless of income status.

"Building on the historic budget investments for our California students and schools, Universal Meals is one of seven key pillars for transforming schools designed to help students heal, recover, and thrive while maximizing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to break the cycle of educational inequity, including nutrition insecurity," said Nicholas Filipas, spokesperson for the California Department of Education. 

All lunch debts have also been forgiven for previous outstanding balances on student accounts.

Some school districts, such as Sacramento City Unified (SCUSD), have been providing most if not all of their students with free meals since the start of the pandemic.

“The last two and a half years, since COVID started in March 2020, the USDA allowed flexibilities in our meal programs and therefore we were able to offer free meals to all students since March 2020,” Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for SCUSD, Kelsey Nederveld said. “USDA extended those flexibilities during the school year when kids did come back to campus in the last previous two years."

Temporary free lunch programs were offered at districts across the state during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when students began returning to school.

"With the start of the new school year, California has expanded the existing state meal mandate, and now each school day, public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools will make available at no charge/cost to all students (regardless of their individual eligibility) breakfast and lunch," Filipas said.

California's Universal Meals legislation extends these free lunch programs for students indefinitely and indiscriminately.

“That was maybe a silver lining of COVID," Nederveld said. "We were able to feed children at no cost, and now because of the universal free meals and in California it's just kind of a smooth transition into the start of the school year for this."

Students at SCUSD were also not being denied food regardless of whether or not they were able to pay for school meals.

“With our district policy, we were never denying kids meals,” Nederveld said. “If they had a negative balance on their lunch account, or if they didn't qualify for free and reduced, we would still offer them a lunch anyways and they were still offered the same lunch that everyone else received.”

According to Nederveld, the district integrated this policy in 2017 that also allowed for students to be clear of outstanding lunch balances using the program's budget.

District nutrition programs are federally funded separately from the school district. These departments are reimbursed by the state for every student that is provided free meals for the cost of the food, resources and labor.

"These meals must continue to be nutritious and comply with the federal meal standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP)," Filipas said. "In order for schools to receive the additional state reimbursement for universal meals served to all students regardless of their individual eligibility, local educational agencies must participate in both the NSLP and SBP."

Now that school breakfast and lunch will be free to all at California public schools, nutrition departments at SCUSD and across the state will receive as much federal funding as is necessary to feed its students.

“We're hoping to change the perception that school lunch isn't just for the kids that are unable to pack a lunch,” Nederveld said.

More information and frequently asked questions can be found through the California Department of Education or by contacting local school district offices.

This article has been updated to include statements from the California Department of Education.

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