California Passes Permanent Universal Free School Meals Program

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
free school meals

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy name: Free School Meals For All Act of 2021

Overview: California has become the first state to pass a universal free school meals program for all public school students. 

Location: California

Population: 39.6 million total population; 6.2 million public school students 

Food policy category: Food security, nutrition

Program goals: To prevent hunger and malnutrition among children. 

How it works: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided waivers allowing schools to offer free meals to all students during the COVID-19 pandemic. These waivers are set to expire at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, $54 million from the California state budget will be used to supplement USDA funding for free school meals. California will invest $650 million in ongoing funds by 2022-2023 to permanently continue offering two free meals per day to all public school students, regardless of income. Another $150 million will be used to improve nutritional training and update school kitchen infrastructure. 

The meals program is one component of Governor Gavin Newsom’s $123.9 billion education package to improve California public schools.  

Progress to date: The bill was first introduced on February 10, 2021 and was signed into law by Governor Newsom on July 9.  

Why it is important: During the 2019-2020 school year, almost 60 percent of California public school students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. Twenty percent of Californians, approximately eight million people, are experiencing food insecurity. 

When children are able to eat a healthy breakfast and lunch at school, they experience less hunger and lower rates of obesity, achieve higher academic performance, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems. Universal free meals eliminate any stigma that may be associated with low-income students’ receiving free or reduced-price lunches, while also making it unnecessary for parents to apply for school meals programs for their children. 

Program/Policy initiated: The policy will go into effect for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Point of contact: 
Office of Governor Gavin Newsom
Phone: (916) 445-2841

Similar practices: Maine is the second state to have passed a universal free school meals program,  signing the bill into law less than 24 hours after California. New York City has been offering universal free school meals since 2017.  

Evaluation: Evaluation will not take place until the policy has gone into effect.

Learn more: 


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