California Becomes First State To Give Free Meals To Public School Students

Ryan Ford
A sign shaped like a pencil that reads "Love to learn"
Unsplash | Tim Mossholder

No one will argue that kids going to class with full stomachs is a bad thing. Kids going hungry in itself is awful to think of, but it's also been shown that hunger and malnutrition affect a child's ability to learn, as well as their physical and educational development.

How to feed kids facing food insecurity remains a stubborn issue, however. As of 2021, 1.54 million kids in America can't afford their school meals, according to Education Data Initiative, and the national public school meal debt stands at $262 million a year.

But a couple of states have decided that the best way to address the issue is to simply provide meals.

In the upcoming school year, all of the six million kids in California's public schools will have access to free meals.

kids eating lunch in a classroom
Unsplash | CDC

California will be the first state in the U.S. to do so — and it's not just lunch, as students will also be provided with breakfast.

The landmark initiative comes after Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 130 into law last July, which comes into effect with the start of the 2022-23 school year.

The program is well timed, coming during a period of high inflation affecting food prices.

A cafeteria working assembling tacos
Unsplash | Obi - @pixel6propix

An estimated 1 in 6 children in America — that's 13 million altogether — experienced food insecurity in 2021, according to Feeding America, one of the many impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent years, many school districts have come under fire for their handling of school lunch debts.

A child's arm with "I need lunch money" stamped on it | Jon Bivens

As NBC News reported, one school district stamped a child's hand with "I need lunch money," another barred students with lunch debts from participating in extracurricular activities, and another discarded a child's lunch after initially serving it. One even threatened to refer a child to foster care over unpaid lunch debts.

California's program eliminates the need for school lunch debts with its Universal Meal Program.

And the state's Department of Education laid out three pillars for 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.

Maine is expected to join California in providing free meals to public school students.

Clip from 'The Simpsons' with Ned Flanders at a podium saying "Well, let me just say I want to put the 'stu' back in students."

Maine's governor, Janet Mills, signed her state's legislation a day after Newsom signed California's.

"Maine children should be able to focus on learning math and playing with their friends, not an empty stomach," State Senator Troy Jackson said at the time. "By providing free, nutritious school meals, no questions asked, we can ensure Maine kids can focus on being kids...No child should have to go to school hungry, especially not in this state."

Kids in need of a meal outside of school hours have options, too.

California has a Meals for Kids mobile app that directs users to locations where they can access meals during the summer, after school, or on days when schools are closed.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!