Flush with cash, California launches largest free school lunch program in U.S.
Students in SMMUSD to Eat for Free in Schools this Fall
July 26, 2021
Students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will have the option to eat school meals for free in the upcoming school year, regardless of their family's income.
Flush with an unexpected budget surplus, California announced on Monday it will offer free school meals to all 6.2 million public school students this fall.
The undertaking will be the largest free student lunch program in the country, state officials said. SMMUSD officials have not yet commented on the free lunch program.
Many school districts, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations and parents are applauding the new program as a pioneering way to prevent the stigma of accepting free lunches and feed more hungry children.
Several U.S. cities including New York, Boston and Chicago already offer free school meals for all. But California became the first state to adopt a universal program late last month.
Under federal rules, a family of four must make less than $34,000 a year to qualify for free meals and $48,000 to qualify for reduced-price meals. The caps are based on federal poverty measures that don't take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California, school officials said.
About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children who need food assistance is much higher in a state with vast income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected and immigrant communities are fearful of applying because of forms that ask intrusive questions about Social Security number and immigration status.
When the pandemic hit, it changed everything - including how school meals were served - and provided an impetus for the universal program, which had bipartisan, unanimous support.
After schools shut in March 2020, many transformed their parking lots into pickup sites, and federal funding allowed schools to offer meals to anyone.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest with 600,000 students, handed out upward of 400,000 meals a day, said district officials.
Backed by over 200 organizations in a coalition called "School Meals for All," lawmakers pushed for funding in the state budget, seizing the momentum at a time when California is flush with cash. The $262 billion budget provides $54 million for the coming school year, supplementing funding from the Biden administration through June 2022. After that, California will spend $650 million annually.