Law increases access to free lunch for low-income students

Yukun Zhang/Staff

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Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a bill authored by District 15 Assemblymember Tony Thurmond to ensure that low-income students have access to the free lunch they are entitled to.

One of the biggest barriers for low-income students’ access to free lunch in California lies within the state’s involved process of identifying and enrolling those qualifying individuals, according to a press release issued by Thurmond’s office.

The bill, AB 1502, streamlines the process that low-income families are required to go through in order to identify their children as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Through a small change in law, AB 1502 provides the California Department of Education, or CDE, greater flexibility in identifying eligible students, “giving more kids the food they need without requiring time-consuming paperwork,” according to the press release.

Currently, the California Department of Health Care Services is the only agency authorized to perform the direct certification match while using CDE and California Department of Social Services, or CDSS, data. AB 1502 amends state law so that CDE can perform direct certification matches instead of working through Health Care Services. The CDE now has the power to directly match students whose families are already qualified for CalFresh — a low-income food program — as eligible for free school meals without completing this specific paperwork.

In 2010, former President Barack Obama signed into law the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act established a system of “direct certification” benchmark percentages for states to meet in regards to matching qualified individuals to the programs intended for them.

California’s match rate benchmark is set at 95 percent. Currently the state matches only about 63 percent of those identified as in need of assistance.

“Many kids that aren’t getting the access they deserve will now begin to get free and reduced lunches,” Thurmond said in the press release.

According to California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a strong supporter of the bill, CDE projects the bill will increase free lunch enrollment by about 400,000 students statewide, moving California closer to the 95 percent enrollment goal.

The bill gives the CDE authority to match data with other agencies to qualify kids for free or reduced lunches, but doesn’t delve into the cost of implementation.

Children are eligible for free school meals if they live in families making less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, according to Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, a senior policy and government affairs manager at the California Children’s Defense Fund.

“There are always barriers for low-income students at all levels,” said BUSD school board member Judy Appel. “Legislation that addresses those barriers helps the whole system, and we know that it helps them learn — you can’t learn if you’re hungry.”

The law will go into effect January 1, 2018.

Audrey McNamara is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.