Updated 2/12/2021: This article has been updated to reflect information from a press release from Nancy Skinner’s office.
In response to the increasing rates of child hunger in California, State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a bill Wednesday that aims to provide all public school students with free meals.
This bill, called SB 364, or School Meals for All, was created to reduce the extensive application process that often dissuades families from applying for free or reduced-price meal plans, according to a press release from Skinner’s office.
“Schools needn’t be in the business of deciding who gets lunch and who doesn’t,” Skinner said in the press release. “It’s costly and contrary to the basic purpose of free education. SB 364 will end this unnecessary bureaucracy and set the table so that every student is entitled to a school meal just as they are entitled to schooling.”
According to Bonnie Christensen, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, the complex application process is not the only problem families face in the current system.
As the eligibility criteria only look at the national poverty level without taking into account the regional cost of living, many ineligible families are left unable to feed their children, according to Christensen. She also noted that offering meals for free would reduce the stigma of free lunch.
Berkeley city auditor Jenny Wong agreed with this sentiment. During her studenthood, Wong said she was part of the free and reduced-price lunch program.
“I remember I had to have proof that I was part of the free lunch program,” Wong said. “I felt so ostracized being part of the free and reduced lunch program, and I tried not to share that. What’s ironic is that because there was a stigma, I’d skip it because I didn’t want to be the ‘poor girl.’ ”
Wong noted that implementing this bill would reduce the administrative costs of the current program. According to Christensen, this change could also save BUSD money.
By law, schools cannot reject students who ask for meals, which leads to thousands of dollars in unpaid meal charges that BUSD has to finance, according to Christensen. As a result, this bill could have a positive fiscal impact on their department.
This bill also prioritizes food being grown in the state of California. As a result, SB 364 has been supported by a coalition of various nonprofit organizations advocating for child hunger, as well as numerous farmers within the state, according to a press release from the Center for Ecoliteracy.
“By serving all for free, we are capturing everyone who needs these benefits,” Christensen said in an email. “Children who have food in their bodies perform better in school and they behave better when they are sated. Schools are struggling to close the learning gap, let’s facilitate this goal by making sure all our children are fed every day.”