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.
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.
- Healthy School Meals for All (Center for Science in the Public Interest)
- The Pandemic Brought Universal Free School Meals. Will They Stay? (Education Week)
- Universal Access to Free School Meals and Student Achievement: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision (The Journal of Human Resources)
- Universal School Meals and Associations with Student Participation, Attendance, Academic Performance, Diet Quality, Food Security, and Body Mass Index: A Systematic Review (Nutrients)
- Why It’s Time to Think Universal School Meals for Our Children (Children’s Defense Fund)
- All California Public School Students Can Now Get Free School Lunches (LAist)
- All California Public School Students Now Have Access to Free Breakfast and Lunch, No Questions Asked (NBC Los Angeles)
- Benefits of School Lunch (Food Research and Action Center)
- California Launches Largest Free School Lunch Program in US (AP News)
- California Roars Back: Governor Newsom Signs Historic Education Package to Reimagine Public Schools (Office of Governor Gavin Newsom)
- California Will Begin Permanently Offering Free Meals to All Public School Students this Fall (CNN)
- Free School Lunch is Now an Option for 6.2 Million Students in California, Regardless of Income (Business Insider)
- New Maine Law Provides Free Meals to School Children (WGME)
- SB-364 Pupil meals: Free School Meals For All Act of 2021 (California Legislative Information)
- School Meals (NYC Department of Education)