What You Need To Know About California's Free Meals For Students

Food insecurity currently affects more than 38 million Americans, according to the USDA. In 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) into law to help feed children so affected, according to the NSLP Fact Sheet. The National Free Breakfast Program followed in 1975. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress expanded both programs to apply to all grade school students in the U.S. – regardless of financial need and/or other eligibility criteria, according to Forbes. However, Republicans in Congress argued that the program was never meant to be more than a temporary pandemic-specific measure and declined to extend it for another school year.

Going forward, many U.S. schools will be unable to offer universal free school meals, according to the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA. The upshot is that things will go back to the way they were before – as in before COVID-19 changed everything, including setting off record-setting inflation that is now making it harder for even more American families to keep themselves and their children fed (via On Point). In other words, going forward, financially eligible families will have to apply for federally subsidized meals. Moreover, "subsidized" won't be free across the board (via NBC News); rather, some families will be asked to kick in some portion of the cost for school meals.

Although it's not clear where the figure comes from, various sources suggest an estimated 10 million children will go hungry, absent intervention. Fortunately, some states are picking up the slack.

California was the first but not the only state to move to a universal free school meals model

"Childhood hunger affects learning," according to The Washington Post, so for children at risk of going hungry, free school meals help even the playing field. Moreover, free school meals are a "lifeline" for affected families. With that in mind, on July 9, 2021, California established the California Universal Meals Program that will ensure that free school meals will continue to be available to public grade school students across the board without families having to apply to participate, starting with the 2022-2023 school year (via California Department of Education). The Program is funded partly through the California State Legislature. In addition, California institutions classified as "high poverty schools" will be required to apply for funding through the federal government's existing subsidized meal rubric.

One important thing to keep in mind is that the success of California's Program will depend, in part, on the federal government continuing to offer school meal subsidies. The same is true for Maine's universal free school meals program, which went into effect days after California's, per GMA. Nevada followed suit on June 27, 2022, although it did not commit to universal free meals past the 2022-2023 school year, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture. Like California and Maine, Nevada's program will be funded, in part, by existing federal programs. Whether other states will follow suit, only time will tell.