California serves as model for free lunch programs

Free school lunch at Berkeley High School is utilized and appreciated by a wide array of its students. Its permanent free price tag plays a crucial role in terms of accessibility of meals.

Free school lunch at Berkeley High School is utilized and appreciated by a wide array of its students. Its permanent free price tag plays a crucial role in terms of accessibility of meals. Underfunded schools can lead to underfed students – and debt. Over 30 million students in the United States cannot afford to pay for school lunches, according to a 2024 survey conducted by the Education Data Initiative. To make matters worse, 96 percent of the surveyed school districts reported an annual increase in the number of students who couldn’t afford lunch. In short, the lunch infrastructure within American public schools is in shambles. And while positive progress has recently been made by California legislators to address this critical issue, we’re far from fixing it.

In the 2022-23 school year, California became the first state to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program for students. The program has three fundamental pillars: local educational agencies have to make two nutritious meals available for all students each school day, high-poverty schools are required to apply to participate in a federal meal provision, and California state legislatures will provide reimbursement to cover the program’s cost. In short, the program requires public school districts to provide two meals, breakfast and lunch, free of charge to any student that requests a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility. The Universal Meals Program is the reason why BHS is able to and must provide free school breakfast and lunch to any student. 

However, the program is not widespread across the country, with students in various states having to pay full price for meals at school. According to a report by the Agriculture Department, the average U.S. household with two school-age children pays $162 a month or $1,458 per year for school meals that are full-priced. The fact that free or reduced-price meals are not available to all students across the U.S. is highly concerning. 

During the pandemic, the federal government provided waivers for schools to serve meals to all students for free, regardless of their household’s income. In the fiscal year 2021, the National School Lunch Program aided by the USDA’s pandemic waivers provided 2.2 billion meals, 98.9 percent of which were served free or at a reduced price, compared to 76.9 percent in 2020 and 74.1 percent in 2019. The waivers and free lunch for all students were seen by some government economists as a test run for future school lunch programs, however, the waivers expired in the summer of 2022. 

Most states went back to the school meal program they had used in years prior to the pandemic. As a result, the reintroduction of pre-pandemic prices could have increased hardship for some students, especially during a time when many households continued to struggle with the economic consequences of the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. According to a USDA report compiled by the Economic Research Service, in December of 2022, nearly one third of households with children in school had to pay for school meals. This expense can cause difficulty in paying for other usual expenses. With rising inflation in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the expiration of federal meal waivers for all students caused significant hardship. 

In total, eight states, including California, have passed legislation to continue to aid schools in providing free school meals for all students. However, there is still no federal program or country-wide implementation of a free school meal policy. The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, which ensures free meals for all students across the country, was introduced in Congress but the act has yet to be passed. 

The success of the system put in place during the pandemic ensured accessible meals for all students and was highly encouraging towards securing further food equity and equal access to healthy, reliable meals. It is imperative that the free meal program, modeled by Berkeley High School, is adopted federally and implemented in all states across the country for the benefit of students and families alike.