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Free school meals mark a new beginning for California education

By Breanna Lu and Tammy Newman Sept. 29, 2021

Suvia Li Art

On July 9, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 364—an act guaranteeing free lunch for all schools in California—because 20 percent of California residents are undergoing food insecurity, according to the California Association of Food Banks. Thus, to alleviate the issue with healthy meals in school, Newsom passed the bill.

A recent state budget surplus allowed Newsom and the State Legislature to pursue this policy. The Act will provide $54 million to help reimburse the costs of free lunches for the 2020-2021 school year. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has supplied waivers that expire at the end of the school year to help schools provide free lunches. California plans to invest $650 million by 2022-2023 with the objective of permanently continuing this policy.

The food department is also currently investing $150 million to promote nutritional training and improve kitchen infrastructure. According to Michael L. Anderson, agricultural and resource economics professor at University of California, Berkeley, adolescents who consistently eat nutritional meals at school score higher on Calif. state achievement tests. As a result, many students, especially those who come from lower-income families or are unable to bring healthy meals to school, are benefitting from this program.

“This new policy is beneficial because eating a proper meal for lunch is essential for students to focus in class. This year, I have been getting school lunch more often compared to previous years since the meals are free. However, more cafeteria workers should be hired because the lines are often really long and students barely have enough time to eat their lunches,” Junior Kimaya Saijpal said.

Despite the benefits, a problem the school has run into is the severe increase in the number of students receiving meals. Although the cafeteria workers are willing to welcome more students with free lunch­—despite the significantly longer lines—the frenzied rush of students in the cafeteria is still overwhelming them.

“This policy has doubled our production. We were serving approximately 200 meals for breakfast and 325 for lunch, but now, we are providing about 400 for breakfast and 600 for lunch. Additionally, when we order food from the distributor, sometimes only half of the order arrives. Hence, we must use our existing resources and serve meals that were not originally on the menu,” Cafeteria Manager Susan Roach said.

While this policy has recently become official, it is not the first time California schools have provided free food without prerequisites. During the pandemic, school districts distributed free grab-and-go lunches at multiple pick-up sites. The large turnout at these drive-throughs encouraged many schools to continue the free meal program, describes Associated Press (AP) News.

Similarly, school districts in major cities, such as New York City and Boston, also provide free school lunches. For instance, the Free Lunch for All Program in New York City (NYC) began in 2017 after students were being shamed or forced to go hungry for not having lunch money. Since then, students have been performing better academically. A study conducted by Syracuse University found that NYC students had significantly higher math and reading test scores after attending schools that provided free lunch.

However, past implementations of free and reduced-price meals have presented multiple problems. Free lunch stigma in schools due to assumptions of poverty pushed many students to go hungry out of embarrassment, reports Very Well Health. Additionally, qualifications to the program did not take into account those who fell just above the eligibility cutoff or the Bay Area’s expensive cost of living.

“I like the concept of free meals, but its purpose is defeated at the school since almost everyone I know getting free lunch is able to pay for it and would be willing to if it meant getting food with better quality and more options,” Junior Keshav Sethi said.

While there is opposition and several issues, free meal programs will hopefully serve as a sign that schools are becoming more attentive to students’ needs beyond the classroom. Newsom is currently looking to extend this program to future school years—potentially a permanent change—so students can stay healthy.


About the Contributors

Breanna Lu

Staff Writer

Breanna Lu is a sophomore at Leland High School and the Investigative Report and Last Word page editor. She loves to binge Netflix shows, try out new foods, explore the outdoors, and stargaze.

Tammy Newman

Staff Writer

Tammy Newman is a junior at Leland High School and a Staff Writer for Journalism. Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with her friends and family as well as reading and writing.

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