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Here’s What California Students Need To Know About Free Meals At School

A school nutrition staff member wearing a mask and gloves hands a pre-packaged lunch to a student through a partially open takeout-style awindow. Next to them is a handwritten sign that says "OPEN."
A returning student receives a pre-packaged lunch at Hollywood High School on April 27, 2021.
(Rodin Eckenroth
/
Getty Images North America)
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The new school year is underway, and a lot has changed.

For one thing, as students and staff make their way back to physical classrooms — many for the first time since March 2020 — everyone inside is wearing masks. Staff will have to be vaccinated, or at least take weekly COVID tests. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, vaccines will be required for staff by Oct. 15.

Another change brought on by the pandemic: free breakfasts and lunches for all California public school students who want one, regardless of income or any other qualifications.

These “universal” meals have been a longtime goal of school nutrition advocates, but it wasn’t until the pandemic — and the accompanying safety protocols limiting in-person interactions — that they were realized in grab-and-go meals.

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“Through the pandemic, families have had to make some really hard choices with lost income and changes in their finances,” explained Kim Frinzell, director of Nutrition Services at the California Department of Education. “So we want children to know — and families to know — that they can come to school and get a meal, and that they don’t have to worry about food insecurity. The school’s there to support the whole child.”

Whether you have previously applied for free and reduced-price lunch status, or if it's your first time depending on schools for these meals, we asked school nutrition experts what you need to know.

Here’s what we learned.

How Will These Universal Meals Work?

If you are a student at a California school that participates in federal school nutrition programs, you can take a free breakfast and/or a free lunch, no matter your family’s income. You will not have to prove you need the meals. You can just take one.

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(It’s important to note that normally — in this case, pre-pandemic — it did not work like this. Usually, you or your school had to meet certain income or other criteria to qualify. Then the school or district would be reimbursed somewhere around $2 to $4 for your meals).

Serving these meals universally and in-person is still new for everyone, so be prepared: lines might get a little long in the cafeteria as students and staff get accustomed to the new system — and as more decide to participate.

For example, pre-pandemic Capistrano Unified, where usually about a quarter of students district-wide have free or reduced-price meal status, averaged less than 4,000 students participating in breakfast and less than 9,000 in lunch. In the first few days of this school year, with meals free for everyone, daily participation rose to an average of 5,514 breakfasts and 11,602 lunches served each day, according to the district’s Food and Nutrition Services director, Kristin Hilleman.

Why Are They Doing This Now?

Universal school meals like these have been a goal of school nutrition advocates for a long time. Supporters say making meals available to everyone reduces the stigma of taking a meal, and helps get more healthy food to more kids.

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But it’s been a difficult goal to realize, though — until the pandemic.

Remember the long lines of cars waiting to pick up prepackaged grab-and-go meals curbside at schools around Southern California these past two school years?

“I think the pandemic really shone a spotlight on the barriers to accessing free and reduced-price meals,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition professionals. “The application process is complicated. It's intimidating, especially for families who are newly impoverished. Particularly during the pandemic, we saw a lot of families utilizing the program who had never had to ask for help, and were uncomfortable about relying on their schools to help feed their families.”

How Is This Possible? If I’m Not Paying, Who Is?

Ever since school campuses first closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) — which heads up these nutrition programs — temporarily waived many of its normal rules to allow for all students to pick up free meals. This was in part a safety concern, because it meant less time spent verifying eligibility at the meal distribution site.

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The thing is, the USDA waivers are only temporary (because of COVID) and are likely going to end at some point.

So the state has decided to step in to fill in the gap.

“We want them to be able to serve all students regardless of whether they're eligible for a free meal or reduced price meal or a paid meal,” said Frinzell, the state education department's nutrition services director.

Starting next school year — and going forward — the state budget includes $650 million to cover the cost of meals the federal program might not cover in the future.

What If My Kid Doesn’t Want A Whole Meal?

Technically, the districts and schools get their reimbursements for meals served, not individual food items. Which means you can’t just walk up and grab a single item — like a carton of milk or a piece of pizza — for free.

“If I was to just serve a slice of pizza, I would not be able to claim that meal for reimbursement,” Capistrano Unified’s Kristin Hilleman explained. “But if we were able to serve that slice of pizza to a student with an apple or with some baby carrots, or broccoli or something, then that meal could be claimed, and we would be able to receive our full federal and state reimbursement for it.”

What If My Kid Wants More Than One Meal?

“Every student is entitled to one free breakfast and one free lunch, but if they want a second breakfast or a second lunch, they will need to pay for that, because the government only reimburses the first complete meal,” said Alhambra Unified Food and Nutrition Services executive director Vivien Watts.

Do I Still Need To Fill Out A Meal Application/Alternative Income Form?

You won’t be required to in order to receive the meals — but if your family is eligible for free and reduced-price meals based on your income, districts and schools hope you still do fill out the forms. That way, they can still get reimbursed for the costs of the food through the National School Lunch and breakfast programs after the federal waivers expire.

Another reason to fill out the forms if you’re eligible: free or reduced-price lunch status is connected to more than just free meals at school. It’s also an important factor in the funding that schools and districts depend on, because the percentage of students who qualify for meal assistance is also taken into account when calculating state and federal funding for schools.

“So if you think about local control funding, and some of the Title I and Title II funding, that data is critically important,” explained the state education department's Kim Frinzell.

Plus, there might be some additional benefits in it for you.

If you are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch status based on your family’s income, you may also qualify for other assistance, like Pandemic EBT (a debit card that eligible families can use to buy food). You could also get fee waivers or reductions when taking standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, or AP exams. And if you are applying to college through the Common App, you can request a waiver of the application fees, among other benefits.

What If My Family Can Afford To Pay For Food — Is It Still Okay To Take A Free Meal?

The school nutrition directors and experts we spoke with say “yes.”

“We never hesitate to put kids from every background on the same school bus, or to provide them textbooks, because we realize that getting kids to school and making sure that they have those key resources in the classroom is critical to learning. And healthy meals are the exact same thing,” said the School Nutrition Association’s Diane Pratt-Heavner.

Frinzell, with the California Department of Education Nutrition Services, pointed out that while about 60% of California students do qualify for free and reduced-price meals based on the federal income guidance, “that doesn’t take into account the high cost of living for so many of our families living in California.”

Meaning that even if you aren’t eligible for the federal program, you could still need help financially. And your child taking the free meals can save you hundreds of dollars.

By providing this safety net, schools serve an important role in helping parents and guardians recover during this difficult time, said Alhambra Unified director of Food and Nutrition services William Fong.

“We’re also a part of the recovery of the whole country,” Fong said. “We just want to take a little burden out of regular life, so [parents] can go back to what they normally do — working or finding a job or whatever.”

While it’s expected that not every student will participate, the goal in Alhambra Unified, where 61.2% of students qualify for the meal assistance, is to feed 75% of K-8 students.

School nutrition directors like Capistrano Unified’s Kristin Hilleman say universal eligibility reduces the stigma for students who take the meals, a benefit that is more than just economic.

“It really takes away so much of that stress for some of our kids,” she said. “We have the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor able to receive free food at school.”

What If I Still Need Help Paying For Food?

Food assistance is something a lot of you have asked our newsroom about throughout the pandemic. There are other resources available, including Pandemic EBT and CalFresh. You can apply for these — and other assistance programs — through BenefitsCal.

In the meantime, you can also check with your local food bank. And you can call 211 or visit 211LA.org to learn about what food resources might be available for you.

What are the questions you've been unable to get answered?