School Lunch

California Takes Huge Step In Feeding Hungry Kids With Universal Meals Program

As of 2020, 14.8% of American kids were facing food insecurity.

Originally Published: 
Clean school cafeteria with many empty seats and tables.

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, California will be the first state to provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students — year-round.

Dubbed the Universal Meals Program, the initiative does away with eligibility requirements for free and reduced school meals and provides nutritionally complete meals to all students regardless of income level, zip code, or surrounding poverty levels — which were just a few of the criteria used to determine eligibility in the past.

The Universal Meals Program is part of a larger spending bill aimed at education finance reform. The bill was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last year and will be funded solely by the California Department of Education.

The move by Newsom comes at a time of increasing childhood food insecurity in the U.S. In 2020, 14.8% of households with children faced food insecurity, up from 13.6% the previous year and the first jump since 2011.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the country restructured lunch programs to provide free lunches to students who would otherwise not have qualified for meal programs. Now, many of those programs are ending, leaving vulnerable kids to wonder where their next meal will come from.

The federal government during early COVID-19 launched a similar program: the Pandemic Era School Meal Waivers Program, instituted in March of 2020, which gave free school lunch to anyone who needed it without having to prove income limits, year-round. It helped deliver consistent, nutritious meals to 30 million kids during its run, 10 million more than before the pandemic began. Historically, only families that proved they had financial need would qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, but the pandemic program was expanded in order to combat what experts feared would be a swell in child hunger. It expired on June 30, 2022.

A new version of the program — one that still expanded funding to school lunch programs nationwide to help schools deal with inflation, supply chain issues, and labor shortages — was passed shortly thereafter. However, parents will be required to prove that they are low-income to participate.

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