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California launches largest free school meal program in the US

After a huge budget surplus from income tax revenue, California is launching the largest free school lunches program in the US. All 6.2 million public school students in the state are free to join regardless of family income.

When classrooms reopen for the fall term in California, all 6.2 million public school students will have the chance to opt into their school’s free meal program for the first time.

This state-wide pledge has been made possible by an unexpected $75 billion budget surplus largely from income tax revenue, and $54 million has now been committed to offer free lunches for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Beyond that, a further $650 million has been set aside to cover the cost of breakfast and lunch options throughout the following year. Gone at last are federal laws that capped student eligibility at under $34,000 per household.

While several US cities including New York, Boston, and Chicago have provided free school meals for some years now, California’s proposal is the first to go completely state-wide – challenging prior notions that the prospect was too costly and unrealistic.

California’s director of food services, Erin Primer, has lauded the influx of funding as ‘historic’ and ‘life changing’ not only in greatly increasing the quantity of school meals, but also the quality. ‘The extra funding will allow schools to offer tastier, better quality food such as fresh bread, produce, and cheese from local producers,’ she said.

At a time where the Golden State found itself flush with cash, momentum to upscale food assistance was quickly seized upon and driven by a coalition of school officials, lawmakers, charities, and parents called School Meals for All.

Almost immediately after, Maine introduced a similar bill of its own.

Addressing the underlying stigma

The government axing of requirements based on family income is obviously huge news for all public students of California, but many are overlooking new benefits for those who were already entitled to free school meals.

A crucial detail about this new lunch system is that it provides a sense of anonymity. Primer regularly brings attention to underlying stigma that, unfortunately, is still attached to free school meals. Those who’ve experienced the comprehensive schooling system will certainly have witnessed as much.

In the case of California, it is hoped that by making free meals available to all, socio-economic differences will become a lot harder to pinpoint and everyone can start to make use of the scheme without fear of being ostracised.

When it comes to communities of colour, the bill may help to alleviate previous stresses that stopped people applying for government help.

During the Trump administration, records showed significant dips in the number of families reaching out for free and reduced-price meals – particularly as his constituency tightened immigration policies.

Circumstantial factors, for instance having a family member illegally in the country, would deter many from filling out detailed forms asking for family income, Social Security numbers, and children’s immigration status. The end result, sadly, left thousands hungry at school.

Aside from Trump getting the boot, the application system was shaken up massively by the pandemic. Many schools turned their parking areas into food pickup sites offering meals to anyone. With no applications or questions asked, the massive turnout highlighted just how much families rely on this support.

In the state’s most populous city, Los Angeles, 400,000 meals were handed out a day by the Los Angeles Unified School District (the largest school in the state).

With this wakeup call, California’s new overhaul aims to close the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ by making the revised system as inclusive and simple as possible for both students and parents.

The scope of the issue globally

While this change is obviously a huge deal for California, and may prove to be a trailblazer for other US states, the global picture is far less positive and work has to be done.

Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and India are among a few countries that provide free school meals to all pupils in compulsory education, leaving millions without that privilege.

In wealthy nations like the UK, where the topic continues to receive media attention on a weekly basis, only 19.7% of students are eligible for free school meals. Since January 2020, 1.44 million students have opted in, but redundancies and income cuts driven by the pandemic continue to exacerbate the problem.

The fact that we haven’t yet made free school meals available nationwide to students in the UK and the US – two of the wealthiest countries on the planet – suggests that feeding students globally will require drastic reform, investment, and collaboration among governments the likes of which we seldom see on social issues.

As suggested earlier, hopefully California’s movements can inspire the rest of the country to take on something similar. If a powerhouse like the US starts to supplement school meals across the board, others will definitely follow suit.