On Thursday, a bill that would eliminate school lunch debt for low-income children was introduced in the Assembly.
Assembly Bill 508, authored by Assemblywoman Luz Rivas (D-Arleta), would effectively remove the reduced-price option for school lunches by giving K-12 students eligible to get reduced-price meals and making them free. AB 508 would require California to give funding to school districts and county offices of education to cover the now free costs.
Assemblywoman Rivas wrote the bill to end school lunch debt in California. School lunch debt is a financial action by schools to keep a tab on students ordering reduced-cost meals who don’t have enough money to buy a school lunch on some days. This debt can often pile up and lead to schools sometimes withholding certain student activities from them, including graduation, until the debt is paid or “lunch shame” kids who have a debt.
Rivas was specifically inspired by Vista student Katelynn Hardee, who had opened up a cookie and cocoa stand to pay off the lunch debts of 123 low-income children in her school district in 2019, as well as the rise of new applicants for free or reduced-price meals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It makes absolutely no sense that we are making poor kids pay for school lunches. While we provide meals to inmates, debt-free, low-income students are forced to incur a debt for a reduced school meal,” said Rivas in a statement on Thursday. “Every penny counts for California’s working families, especially during these financially strenuous times. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of hard-working parents continue to lose their jobs and see their savings vanish. When students return to school, we should not burden them with debt when they cannot afford to pay for lunch.”
AB 508 support, opposition
The bill quickly drew co-sponsors on Friday from several legislators, as well as support from groups such as the American Diabetes Association.
“No child should have to miss out on a school meal because their parents can’t afford their lunch,” added Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), a primary co-author. “I’m proud to co-author AB 508 to relieve this burden for so many parents whose children rely on school meal services to stay nourished, healthy, and prepared to learn.”
While no formal opposition has been launched against the bill as of Friday, partially due to AB 508 clearly lining out where funding for the program would come from, experts noted that the bill is part of a movement this year to try to overhaul school lunch programs in California.
“Right now, California has a bunch of bills floating around trying to upend free lunches for students,” education policy advisor Howard Swift told the Globe. “You have SB 364 out there too, which just gives everybody a school lunch who wants one, but isn’t being upfront of where the money would come from or how logistically it is even possible to do this without food waste.
“AB 508 is more palatable in a way because it eliminates student lunch debt statewide, which groups like the NEA have been trying to get rid of for years, gives free meals to kids who are still needy, and tells the taxpayer how exactly they will get the money for this. This is all right out of the playbook parties use by having several similar bills go up to try and get at least one of them passed. Let’s see where the bills land post-committee, because at least one of these is going for a vote this year.”
AB 508 is expected to be heard in committee beginning March 12th.