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Friday, September 24, 2021

"No questions asked, no stigma," California to offer free school meals

By Pamela Cruz. Peninsula 360 Press [P360P]

"No questions asked. No stigmas. ALL California children have access to free school meals," tweeted the state's governor, Gavin Newsom, to unveil this life-changing measure for thousands of young children.

And that's because the state of California will begin providing free school meals on a permanent basis. The measure, which will begin this fall, has been praised by advocates as a big step toward ending food insecurity.

State officials said this action is the first of its kind in the U.S.: making free meals permanent for all public school students, regardless of their family's income.

Until before the pandemic, more than 3.6 million California students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school. That was nearly 60 percent of the state's entire student body.

Parents seeking to qualify their children for the federal free lunch program had to list their income and immigration status. However, when the pandemic hit, the federal government eliminated the income requirements for free meals, allowing schools to offer meals to anyone in need.

So starting this fall, everything will be different for millions of parents and students, as breakfast and lunch will be completely free without a single question.

According to School Meals for All, right now, nearly 20 percent of all California households, 27.3 percent of Latino households with children, and 35.5 percent of African American households are food insecure.

"This is double the pre-pandemic rates, which affect an estimated 8 million Californians," the organization said in a June communiqué.

In addition, universal free lunch programs ensure that no one is left behind and eliminate the stigma associated with qualifying for free or reduced-price meals because of household income, said the coalition of more than 200 organizations representing health, education, labor, agriculture and food banks.

Kathy Saile, director of No Kid Hungry, said, "For millions of California students, the breakfast and lunch they receive at school are the only meals they get. The pandemic has highlighted the incredibly important role that daily, nutritious school meals play in the fight against childhood hunger and food insecurity.

The state of California will invest $650 million in ongoing funding in fiscal 2022-23 to support universal free school nutrition, and $150 million to improve kitchen infrastructure and nutrition training, the governor's office said in a statement.

In addition, AB 130 legislation, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, will also reverse:

  • 3 billion to convert thousands of school sites into full-service community schools, with more learning time, family engagement, and comprehensive health, mental health, and social services.
  • 1.8 billion in continued funding for summer and extended day (after school) programs for all those serving the most vulnerable students with $5 billion by 2025.
  • 2.9 billion to match well-prepared teachers with the most vulnerable students, including $500 million in grants for teachers who commit to high-need schools and $250 million to attract expert teachers to high-poverty schools.
  • A continued increase of $1.1 billion to improve staff-to-student ratios in all schools serving the highest concentrations of vulnerable students, including up to five counselors, nurses, teachers, or for additional educators in each school.
  • 490 million to support construction and renovation of state preschool, transitional kindergarten, and kindergarten facilities, culminating in $2.7 billion in ongoing funding from 2025-26 to achieve universal prekindergarten for all four-year-olds.
  • More than $1.5 billion in ongoing, one-time increases to fund special education, including $260 million for early intervention for preschool-age children.

With information from NBC Los Angeles.

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