BBefore California became the first state to introduce a universal meal program for its 6.2 million public school students, Alyssa Wells kept granola bars in her classroom for students who complained of hunger.
When the new program began in August at Foussat Elementary School in Oceanside, California, which serves mostly Latino students from low-income families, the teacher immediately noticed changes in her students. “The kids are eating a lot more and are more focused, eager to learn and just plain happier,” she said. “They have one less thing to worry about.”
In San Diego County, where Oceanside is located, more than 14% or 100,000 children are food insecure because they do not have consistent access to enough nutrition for an active, healthy life.
Parents, educators, school officials and anti-hunger organizations say the program — which serves all children regardless of family income — will also improve academic performance and remove the stigma associated with free and affordable lunches. California has the nation’s largest population of public school students, which now means about 12% of American children have access to free breakfast and lunch through this state legislation, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus. Maine adopted a similar universal nutrition program right after California.
Another teacher, Sydnee Trelease, said that Foussat’s students were particularly interested in fresh fruit and the salad bar. “There are different foods that they might not be used to,” she said, “and because it’s free, it gives them a chance to expand their taste buds without feeling any pressure.”
The launch of California’s new program comes after Joe Biden announced a goal of ending hunger by 2030 and the Biden administration is preparing to host the Sept. 28 White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, which first of its kind since 1969.
Levels of food insecurity and hunger have shown little improvement over the past two decades, with large spikes associated with high unemployment during the Great Recession and the first year of the Covid pandemic. Food insecurity is directly linked to poverty, and last year more than 5 million households — the equivalent of one in 10 American families — skipped meals and reduced portion sizes because they couldn’t afford enough groceries.
Despite these alarming numbers, Covid relief programs like child tax credits, an expansion of food stamps and universal free school meals in 2021 actually helped bring hunger in households with children to the lowest levels on record.
In the long run, eliminating hunger can only be achieved by tackling the root causes of poverty, however Experts say universal school meals for all are an important part of trying to reach that goal. Congressional Democrats have pushed for legislation to make that support permanent, but the politics are complicated.
“Increased food security helps children thrive in school and break the cycle of poverty,” said Gary Sloan, chief US operations officer at the nonprofit organization Feed the Children. “It also allows parents to reallocate those financial resources to provide groceries and essentials for their home.”
For one in three California households struggling to meet their basic needs, the program is a game changer.
Hunger can affect cognitive function, overall health, mood, and attention span. Food insecurity also has a psychological toll. Research shows that free school meals are associated with improved academic performance and reduced incidences of bad behavior.
Anti-hunger advocacy groups say the program will also help create more racial justice in California, where marginalized communities are more likely to be food insecure than white populations.
Some communities of people of color and immigrant families had said they were afraid to sign up for free or discounted lunches because detailed forms ask intrusive questions about income and immigration status. Others are embarrassed to receive free meals. Now California kids have equal access to breakfast and lunch.
Following the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waived eligibility requirements to allow students to receive free meals year-round to prevent a looming child hunger crisis.
USDA data and research suggest that these universal school meals coincided with a decrease in child food insecurity rates between 2020 and 2021.
The program expired this summer, even as low-income families faced hardships such as higher food and gas prices and economic insecurity, all of which led to increased hunger.
In July, an aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell said the minority leader and other Republicans don’t think schools need the pandemic-era provisions because the conditions that required them have ended.
But “when these programs aren’t available or are compromised, children are at increased risk of chronic hunger and food insecurity — which means they can’t be sure how or when they’ll get their next meal,” Sloan said.
States like Nevada, Vermont and Massachusetts extended free school meals for the 2022-2023 school year, and momentum is building for universal statewide programs similar to those in California and Maine across the country.
Nearly a dozen states, including Colorado, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, are working towards enacting permanent legislation, and major US cities like New York, Boston and Chicago are already offering free school meals to all.
“We spend billions of dollars on education funding, and when teachers have hungry students in their classroom, we’re wasting our money,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the Food Research & Action Center (Frac), one of the more than 200 organizations who supported the California plan.
“It’s not rocket science. Everyone knows when kids are hungry they can’t focus or focus.”
Frac and other stakeholders are urging the White House to consider strategies to permanently transition all US schools to a free national system.
The country already has a national school lunch program and a school breakfast program that operates in schools and residential childcare facilities. Children from families earning 130% or less of the federal poverty line are eligible for free meals, while children earning between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty line are eligible for discounted meals.
A spokesman for Senator John Boozman, the chief Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently said he would not support attaching universal school meals to a necessary stopgap bill to keep government funding going. Conservative critics have said free meal programs are costly and a handout to wealthy families.
But Norm Fruchter, senior advisor at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University, said more free meal legislation could be passed based on events in California.
“It baffles me why more states and counties haven’t come on board already because there are no downsides here,” he said. “I don’t know why states hesitate.”
Free school meals for all students are already popular with Americans. According to a December 2021 Urban Institute poll, nearly 70% of adults supported universal meals.
For Sandra Medellin, who has two daughters who attend Foussat Primary School, the new government program saves time and money and makes it easier for her children to try more nutritious foods.
“Sometimes there’s no time for breakfast, and sometimes I don’t have the money to buy healthy things in the second week of the month,” she says.
As a single mom who works full-time and goes to school online, Daniela Solis, another of Foussat’s parents, welcomed the introduction of universal meals. “The new program is just amazing,” she said. “It gives all students access to adequate and nutritious food at school, as it should have always been.”
Solis said her son likes to bring a lunch box from home, but he enjoyed having extra choices. On the few occasions they forgot to bring their lunch, the free food program served as a safety net.
“How can we as a nation claim to have such a strong economy and such prosperous wealth when we have children who have no access to food?” Solis said. “Our taxes should be used for such programs.”