Free School Meals for All Considered in California State Budget

May 4, 2021 – (Sacramento, CA)

by: Kat Taylor

On the heels of a White House proposal to increase access to school meals and in advance of a California budget hearing on May 5, a coalition of more than 100 organizations is calling on lawmakers to support policies from the “Free School Meals for All Act of 2021.” School nutrition directors, teachers, labor organizations, health experts, environmental advocates, racial equity champions, child poverty advocates, ranchers, and farmers are raising awareness about the benefits of school meals and the essential work of school nutrition professionals in a week of action culminating on School Lunch Hero Day (May 7).

“California will continue to lead nationally and set a strong example for the federal government by supporting school food policies that close the harmful educational, economic, and health gaps that have only widened during the pandemic,” said  Kat Taylor, Founding Director, TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation. Providing our school children with fresh, California-grown meals advances their education and development.”

On Wednesday, May 5, the California Senate Budget Subcommittee on Education will hear testimony on how policies from the “Free School Meals for All Act of 2021” would improve student health and academic achievement while supporting California farmers and ranchers. 

“Free school meals for all is based on a simple, compelling premise: universal schools, universal meals,” said Senate Budget Committee Chair Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland), who introduced the “Free School Meals for All Act of 2021.” “Everyone benefits if meals are just part of the school day. It will improve learning and is less of a hassle for families and less bureaucracy for our schools.”

In April, the California Senate Human Services Committee and the California Senate Education Committee unanimously passed the “Free School Meals for All Act of 2021.” The bill has 30 co-authors from across California. This proposal could make California the first state in the nation to permanently provide two free meals to all K-12 students while incentivizing local purchases from California farmers and supporting low-income families in reducing child hunger when schools are closed.

“We are at a critical moment to invest in our children and their education,” said Adam Kesselman, Executive Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. “Senator Skinner’s School Meals for All benefits California families, schools, and agriculture. The time is now.”

Acknowledging the ongoing need and importance of school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently extended several emergency feeding waivers that began during COVID-19 through June 30, 2022 — allowing all children nationwide to access free meals at school sites. School Meals for All would provide a seamless transition so that California families can continue to access the free school meals they have depended on during the pandemic. 

Additionally, in the American Families Plan, the Biden administration proposed an investment of $45 billion to help low-income Americans have greater access to nutrition assistance through the school meals program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. The provisions that California is considering would extend EBT benefits during school breaks and disasters lasting more than five days — such as those caused by the state’s frequent wildfires. 

“No child should go hungry in California, home to the fifth-largest economy in the world. Yet, child hunger has reached shameful levels, with deep inequities for low-income communities of color. Budgets are statements of values, and California must take a strong stand against child hunger,” said Andrew Cheyne, Director of Government Affairs for the California Association of Food Banks. “Parents can’t save for a rainy day if their children are hungry, and we need the state to use its resources to fight hunger right now.”

A new study from Tufts University shows school meals are the primary source of nutritious meals for American children. Researchers found that the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 greatly improved the nutritional quality of school meals. Policies from the “Free School Meals for All Act of 2021” could further improve school meals for California children, providing them with fresh, nourishing meals as California recovers from the pandemic. 

“School Meals for All should be our biggest priority,” said Mark Chavez, Director of Nutrition Services at Long Beach Unified School District, the third-largest public school district in California. “When meals are free for everyone, more students participate. This has benefits for students, families, and school districts.”

Across the state, school nutrition directors like Mark Chavez — alongside thousands of school nutrition professionals — have continued to provide school meals throughout the pandemic despite the challenges of weather, wildfire smoke, and COVID-19 outbreaks. In celebration of their dedication, May 7 is the 8th Annual School Lunch Hero Day, a day to acknowledge the contributions of school nutrition professionals in reducing child hunger and providing nutritious meals to students. The School Meals for All coalition will participate in a week of action to raise awareness about the benefits of school meals and the essential work of school nutrition professionals.

“No parent should have to worry about whether their child will have access to food, especially when our state produces nearly half of the country’s fresh produce,” said Jessica Stender, co-chair of the Stronger California Advocates Network, a collaborative campaign of more than 50 advocacy groups and coalitions from across the state. “The past year proved how crucial school meals are to families. School Meals for All will help California families regain economic security as we rebuild from the pandemic.”

School Meals For All Coalition Members:

What People Are Saying About School Meals For All:

Media Contact:
Lucy-Claire Saunders