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California's public schools to offer free meal to all students

by The Associated Press | July 20, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Parent Ernesto Cortes walks away with his children's free school lunches and a weekend box, after picking them up on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Los Angeles Unified School District's Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

SAN FRANCISCO -- When classrooms in California reopen for the fall term, all 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income.

The undertaking, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus, will be the largest free student lunch program in the country. School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations and parents are applauding it as a pioneering way to prevent the stigma of accepting free lunches and feed more hungry children.

"This is so historic. It's beyond life-changing," said Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

Several U.S. cities including New York, Boston and Chicago already offer free school meals for all. But until recently, statewide universal meal programs were considered too costly and unrealistic. California became the first state to adopt a universal program last month, and Maine followed shortly after with a similar plan.

"We've completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school food," Primer said. The extra funding will also allow her to offer tastier, better-quality food such as fresh bread, produce and cheese from local producers, she said.

Under federal rules, a family of four must earn less than $34,000 a year to qualify for free meals and $48,000 to qualify for reduced-price meals. The caps shift annually but are based on federal poverty measures that don't take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California.

"So it's just for the most poor families, and not even all of them because some people failed to sign up or were fearful to sign up," said Kat Taylor, a philanthropist and major funder of the Center for Ecoliteracy and the TomKat Ranch that backed California's plan.

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About 60% of California students qualify, but experts say the number of children who need food assistance is much higher in a state with vast income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected, and immigrant communities in particular are fearful of applying because of detailed forms that ask questions such as family income, Social Security numbers and children's immigration status.

Schools reported a declining percentage of families applying for free and reduced-price meals during the Trump administration, which attempted to tighten immigration policies and public benefits.

Like school officials statewide, Primer has countless tales of children who struggled to pay for school meals or were too ashamed to eat for free. There was the child whose mother called Primer, distraught because she made a few hundred dollars too much to qualify; the father who is in the country illegally and feared that filling out the free meal application could get him deported; and constant cases of high schoolers not wanting friends to know they need free food, so they skip eating.

When the pandemic hit, it changed everything -- including how school meals were served -- and provided an impetus for the universal program, which had bipartisan, unanimous support. Lawmakers previously had pursued only targeted bills such as easing school lunch debt.

After schools shut in March 2020, many transformed their parking lots into pickup sites, and federal funding allowed schools to offer meals to anyone. There were no applications or qualifications -- no questions asked.

The massive turnout showed how much families rely on the meals.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest with 600,000 students, handed out upward of 400,000 meals a day, said spokeswoman Shannon Haber. San Luis Coastal, with 7,500 students, gave out 30,000 meals a week at the height of the pandemic, nearly triple the number before. The district includes the wealthy city of San Luis Obispo and lower-income areas.

Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, left, distributes free school lunches and a weekend box to parent Ernesto Cortes on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, left, distributes free school lunches and a weekend box to parent Ernesto Cortes on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Parent Ernesto Cortes manages to carry his children's free school lunches and a weekend family box, after picking them up on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Los Angeles Unified School District's Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Parent Ernesto Cortes manages to carry his children's free school lunches and a weekend family box, after picking them up on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Los Angeles Unified School District's Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, left, distributes free school lunches on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, left, distributes free school lunches on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers, Tomoko Cho, left, and Aldrin Agrabantes help parent Celia Contreras load her free school lunches in to her vehicle on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers, Tomoko Cho, left, and Aldrin Agrabantes help parent Celia Contreras load her free school lunches in to her vehicle on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, April Thomas, Tomoko Cho, left, and Aldrin Agrabantes distribute school lunches on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, April Thomas, Tomoko Cho, left, and Aldrin Agrabantes distribute school lunches on Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District Food Service manager Rosa Garcia checks food stocks in a walk-in freezer for free school meals on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District Food Service manager Rosa Garcia checks food stocks in a walk-in freezer for free school meals on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, right, distributes free school meals on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Marisel Dominguez, right, distributes free school meals on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, Tomoko Cho, Aldrin Agrabantes, April Thomas, and Marisel Dominguez, pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, Tomoko Cho, Aldrin Agrabantes, April Thomas, and Marisel Dominguez, pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, April Thomas, Marisel Dominguez, Tomoko Cho, and Aldrin Agrabantes pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, April Thomas, Marisel Dominguez, Tomoko Cho, and Aldrin Agrabantes pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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