As a result of California’s new “Universal Meals Program”, designed to expand on the federal National Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, Berkeley High School, during the 2022-23 school year, will continue offering two free meals to all students every day regardless of family income.
According to the Berkeley Unified School District Director of Nutrition Services, Bonnie Christensen, free school meals have historically been funded mostly by the federal government. If a student fell under the national poverty level, they would qualify for free or reduced meals. Students would be identified when they received their meal, and BUSD received reimbursement from the federal government depending on whether the meal was considered free, reduced, or paid.
Keely Shaller, a BHS freshman, commented on the impact of school lunch, “It’s free. I don’t have a lot of money to get lunch or make lunch all of the time, and I find school lunch really helpful. It is not fine dining, but it’s edible and healthy enough.”
During the 2021-22 school year, California used its budget surplus and federal COVID-19 aid to allow public schools to provide two free meals daily to all students regardless of household income.
This year, BUSD would have had to operate once again under the usual National School Lunch Program, however, California recently implemented the Universal Meals Program, which allocates funds to reimburse public schools, so that all students can receive two free school meals.
“California realized because of COVID-19 that so many kids in our state are food insecure,” Christensen said. “So it doesn’t make sense anymore to charge for meals. The best thing to do in order to have actual equity and to address food insecurity issues is for California to pay for all of the students to eat for free.”
BUSD will continue to receive free lunch reimbursement from the federal government for the students who are under the national poverty level, and now also receive reimbursement from California for the students who are not.
“It seems really beneficial,’’ Sunny Bevis-Lipton, a student at BHS, said about the benefits of free school lunch for all. “A lot of people are embarrassed to say that they don’t have a lot of money or don’t want to say I need free school lunch. It could just be free for anyone (including) people who need it and people who want it.”
Even if a student can technically afford meals, free school lunch can still be useful as a convenient way to receive additional food, according to Sophomore, Theo Koehler.
“School lunch is just kind of easy,” Koehler said. “In elementary school, either my parents would make me lunch or I would make myself lunch. And then I’d also get school lunch just because I was hungry,” added Koehler.
Additionally, since the qualifications to be considered under the national poverty line are the same for every place in the country, Christensen argues that the eligibility rules don’t take into account the different costs of living in different areas.
“What is really great about this program is that it fixes the national poverty line problem,” Christensen said. “The Bay Area is very expensive, it is only getting more expensive. Every year, we see kids dropping off of the free and reduced program, even though they can’t afford to pay for meals.”
Christensen reflected on the importance of schools providing food for all of their students.
“(Food) should be equitable, and everybody has a right to high-quality, nutritious foods.” Christensen said. “Our job is to teach you, and to educate you, and to support the whole child. Part of that support is about feeding all of our children.”