A new bill to make school lunches free for all public school students in the state, regardless of status or income, was introduced in the Senate Wednesday.
Under Senate Bill 364, authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), breakfast and lunches would continue to be offered to all public school students free of charge after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The new school meal program, to be known as the California Universal School Meal Program, would effectively remove lengthy application processes and eligibility determination for free meals.
SB 364 would act as an extension of the federal Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act. Passed by Congress last year, the act allows meals to be served to all public school children without the need of paperwork or eligibility requirements until the end of the pandemic. If passed, the federal program would transfer to SB 364 in California after the pandemic.
In addition, the bill would create an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program known as the Better Out of School Time (BOOST) Nutrition Program, ensuring children can continue to receive free meals when the school is closed during breaks lasting longer than a week and future prolonged disasters. Like the the California Universal School Meal Program acting as an extension of a federal program, the BOOST program would be an extension of the current federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, which gives children access to meals while schools are closed for the pandemic.
Finally, California agriculture will be highlighted in the new meal program, prioritizing food grown and produced in California.
Senator Skinner wrote SB 364 as a way to battle growing hunger in California. According to Skinner, 0ver 30% of children in California are experiencing hunger, double the pre-COVID-19 rate of 15.2%. By removing “red tape” and applications from the free meal process, Skinner notes that the bill would effectively fight child hunger in the state.
“Free education for every child has long been the norm. Knowing how essential nutrition is to learning, it makes sense that free, healthy meals also be the norm,” Senator Skinner said Wednesday. “SB 364 will ensure that students are fed without the red tape schools and families are currently burdened with.”
“Schools needn’t be in the business of deciding who gets lunch and who doesn’t. It’s costly and contrary to the basic purpose of free education. SB 364 will end this unnecessary bureaucracy and set the table so that every student is entitled to a school meal just as they are entitled to schooling,” she added.
The bill immediately proved popular after it was introduced Wednesday, gaining over two dozen co-authors from the Senate and the Assembly and getting immediate support from numerous school, nutrition, and child advocate groups.
“As the nation’s largest agricultural economy, California farmers and ranchers could be the heroes of food security and feeding our future, our children,” director of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation Kat Taylor said on Wednesday. “SB 364 is a bold vision to make California the first state in the nation to provide all kids with nutritious, locally grown school food.”
Financial, logistical issues with SB 364
However, many groups have also opposed the bill, stating that it needs significant changes and details to become viable. One of the largest points of contention for opponents of the bill is the lack of funding, as SB 364 doesn’t say where the money will come from to pay for meals for all students.
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find a politician willing to stop the free meal program,” education policy advisor Howard Swift told the Globe. “After all, the National School Lunch Act was passed by Congress in 1946 after so many men drafted for service in World War II had to be rejected for being in poor health that was primarily associated with malnutrition as a child, especially in very rural and poor urban areas. At the very least, it’s a national security thing.”
“And with the number of children not getting enough to eat during the Pandemic, you know, we don’t want those levels to come back again. But we also need to know how we’re going to pay for all of it. Federal and state programs pay for free or reduced-price meals already for low-income children. In California, 3.9 million, or around 63% of students, are currently eligible. So with these free meals for all, we need to know where the money for the other 37% is coming from. Skinner isn’t saying, and for many, that’s crazy. That’s a lot of money coming from who knows where.”
“It’s also a logistical nightmare. You would need to order enough food for all students, but not every student will get it. So that means a lot of extra food that will need to be used later for another lunch. And that means you either needs more regular orders, which costs more, or more preserved food, which isn’t very healthy. More details are needed there, because it’s very difficult to operate a food service where you have no idea how many will be eating that day. Ever go to a large party where some people who didn’t RSVP show up and food and drinks ran out very early on? Same principle, only imagine some kids not being able to eat because of it. She doesn’t even address this in the bill.”
“We need to figure out these things first.”
If approved, SB 364 would make California the first state to have a free lunch program for all children in the United States.