Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom submitted his revised 2021-22 budget, a proposal that embraces the concept of free, nutritional meals for all students. Now, many eyes are fixed on him as he is poised to cement the state’s legacy as the first in the nation to standardize the provision of free school meals.
California is home to about 6 million K-12 public school students as well as the fifth-largest economy in the world. Its leadership in implementing universal free meals would be a game changer for our kids, families, growers and food service workers, serving as an example for other states.
As co-sponsors of SB 364 — a bill introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, also known as the Free School Meals for All Act of 2021 — we call on Gov. Newsom to support the Legislature’s recently passed budget. While this budget was passed as a placeholder to satisfy a constitutional deadline, negotiations between the Legislature and Newsom are ongoing, and a deal for a final state budget is expected any time between now and July 1. The placeholder budget was directly influenced by SB 364, providing $650 million in ongoing funding beginning in 2022-23 to ensure all students have access to free breakfast and lunch at school.
Elements from both budget proposals would provide urgent funding that would reduce child hunger, maximize federal resources available through child nutrition programs, support essential school nutrition workers and bolster the state’s agricultural sector. SB 364 would help fill in any gaps as a two-year bill, the details of which will ultimately depend on budget negotiations.
The governor’s current proposal includes $150 million to encourage schools’ participation in federal programs that allow them to provide free meals for every student. But under his proposal, up to half of the public schools in California — and the 2.9 million students they serve — would not be eligible to receive benefits through the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, and other federal provisions that allow some schools to provide all meals for free.
Schools are eligible for CEP if the number of students certified through programs such as CalFresh and MediCal is greater than 40% of the total student population in a single school or in the group of schools within a school district. With 38% of public schools already participating in CEP, only 12% of California schools — a total of 639,737 students — stand to benefit most from Newsom’s proposal, according to the Center for Ecoliteracy’s data analysis from the Food Research & Action Center and the state’s Department of Education.
However, the state needs to ensure that all students in its schools have access to nutritional meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that have allowed schools to provide free meals for students during the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire at the end of the 2021-22 school year, taking food away from children and families who continue to experience economic hardships.
The need for free meals is apparent in the number of families that pick up food at schools and food banks. In April 2020 alone, California food banks distributed food to more than 1.5 million households — about 4.5 million people — feeding 62% of the total number of individuals served in all of 2019. Right now, nearly 20% of all California households — and 27.3% of Latinx households with children and 35.5% of Black households with children — report food insecurity. This is double pre-pandemic rates, impacting about 8 million Californians.
While we encourage Newsom to adopt the Legislature’s funding for universal school meals, there are elements in his proposal that we certainly applaud, including the provision of funding for school kitchen infrastructure improvements and staff training, as well as $30 million to support farm-to-school programs that help provide fresh produce to students and support local agriculture.
Expanding access to fresh, nutritional meals for students via increased farm-to-school program funding will encourage healthy eating, bolster the state’s economy and support the resiliency of our California farmers. In addition, Newsom’s proposal to provide training and equipment for school nutrition professionals are welcome investments, especially after these essential workers put their lives on the line to feed our children during the pandemic.
Some might argue that California should start by providing more school meals to all low-income families first. But this limitation of scope would likely only exacerbate the stigma about poverty that, as evidence suggests, influences a child’s behavior to the point where they might purposely miss a meal, even if it is their only meal that day.
Fundamentally, this is about nourishing our children. We know that proper nutrition supports child development, improves behavior and educational outcomes, prepares children to learn and helps foster lifelong healthy habits, according to a body of evidence.
The pandemic has proven that we can provide school meals for our students, and we cannot go back. We urge the governor and the Legislature to work together to ensure that free, universal meals for breakfast and lunch are included in the final budget. They must ensure that there is enough funding without creating stigma for students, school meal debt for parents or deficits for schools. California can truly lead by showing that just as we commit to educating all of our children, so too will we provide the food they need to learn.