All California public school students will have access to free nutritious meals this school year, thanks to the statewide Universal Meals Program.
The program comes at a crucial time, with food costs rising, inflation and an overall increase in children facing hunger since the pandemic. According to Feeding America, an estimated 13 million children (1 in 6), may have experienced food insecurity in 2021.
California is the first state to promise all 6 million public school students free meals thanks to the landmark state budget agreement Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law last July after the passage of Assembly Bill 130.
The Universal Meals program is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (BSP) and ensures all students are offered breakfast and lunch at school.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat, helped lead the effort to establish a universal school meal program and called the meals "essential to learning."
"We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you're hungry you cannot learn well," she told EdSource last year.
According to the California Department of Education, three key pillars have been established to ensure the program's success:
1. California’s State Meal Mandate is expanded to include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for, not just needy children, but all children each school day.
2. High poverty schools will be required to participate in the federal provision.
3. The California State Legislature allocates funds to provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program.
The state's department of education said on its website that it is "committed to working with sponsors on the successful implementation" of the new program. Officials said the department will offer resources including "training and listening sessions," and will "solicit sponsors feedback, highlight best practices for collecting the federally required income information, and issue formal policy guidance including management bulletins."
ABC News Fresno affiliate KFSN reported that, due to higher need, the Merced Union High School District had a head start and was already serving free breakfast and lunch to students.
Maine became the second state to commit to offering a universal school meals program last year, a day after California, when Gov. Janet Mills signed budgetary legislation that carved out additional funding for a free meals program.
"Maine children should be able to focus on learning math and playing with their friends, not an empty stomach. By providing free, nutritious school meals, no questions asked, we can ensure Maine kids can focus on being kids," Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, the budget bill's primary sponsor, said in a statement at the time. "No child should have to go to school hungry, especially not in this state."