Free Meals Available for All San Francisco Children

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
San Francisco Meals

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy name: San Francisco Unified School District Grab-and-Go Meals

Overview: The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is offering free meals to all children under the age of 18 who live in San Francisco, regardless of whether or not they are enrolled in SFUSD schools.

Location: San Francisco, California

Population: 0.9 million

Food policy category: Food security, nutrition

Program goals: To reduce hunger among children.

How it works: Parents need to provide their children’s name and birthdate in order to receive a grab-and-go card that allows them to pick up free meals. The child does not need to be present at the time of pick-up. 

Eighteen distribution sites are open across the city on two days per week. On Tuesdays, these sites are open to SFUSD students and their siblings only. On Thursdays, any child under 18 may receive meals. 

Each day, the distribution sites provide two days’ worth of prepared meals per child, in addition to snacks, fruit, vegetables, and milk. 

Sites are closed on December 17, and instead will be open on Friday, December 18. All children will receive seven days’ worth of meals on December 18 to make up for the holiday closure from December 21 through January 5. 

Progress to date: SFUSD has been providing free meals to enrolled students since schools closed due to COVID-19 in March. In August, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorized school districts to provide meals for all children in their districts, regardless of school enrollment status or free- or reduced-price lunch program enrollment, through December. In October, the USDA expanded the child nutrition waivers through the end of the 2020-2021 school year.  Before they were able to expand their program, however, the SFUSD had to spend the last few months organizing staffing and facilities to accommodate and ensure safe delivery of meals to all children. As of December 3, the grab-and-go meals program is also serving children who are not enrolled in SFUSD schools.

Why it is important: More than 22 million children rely on free- and reduced-price school meals during the school year. School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic would have left these students without food to eat if other accommodations had not been made. Moreover, 15 percent of all Americans lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, and 46 percent of low-income Americans reported having trouble paying bills since the pandemic hit. 

The combination of school closures and job losses has made it difficult for many families to keep food on the table. Forty percent of Americans have experienced food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic, and a Feeding America report estimates that 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, will be food insecure by the end of 2020.  

Federally funded meals for children are necessary to ensure that kids do not go hungry during this difficult time and to help struggling families save money on food so they can pay other bills and medical expenses.

Program/Policy initiated: The program was expanded to include all children in the city on December 3, 2020. 

Point of contact: 
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Vincent Matthews
Phone: (415) 241-6121

Similar practices: The USDA has extended food waivers to provide free meals for children nationwide. An interactive map is available to locate distribution sites in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.  

Evaluation: Dr. Vincent Matthews reported that SFUSD has provided 4 million meals to children in San Francisco since the pandemic began, a number that will continue to increase as the grab-and-go meals program expands to serve all children.  

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