2 States to Provide Free Meals in Schools, Regardless of Need

Maine follows California's lead with effort to fight hunger, help learning
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 13, 2022 12:50 PM CDT
2 States to Provide Free Meals in Schools, Regardless of Need
A student pulls out cash to pay for lunch at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto, California, in 2010. That will no longer be necessary in the state.   (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Starting in the new school year, California will provide breakfast and lunch to any public school student who wants a meal, free of charge—regardless of family income. The offer also is good for students in county offices of education and charter schools with students in transitional kindergarten to grade 12, the Sacramento Bee reports. That makes California the first state in the nation to not charge students for meals. The legislation passed last year removes the issues around qualifying students for a meal; until now, they had to meet criteria involving their parents' income, the ZIP code the family lives in, and the poverty level in the area where the school is located, per KRON.

"When a student would come through a lunch line and they were considered to be a free student, it would create definitely a barrier with getting meals during the day," said Erin Tassey, director of nutritional services for the Merced Union High School District. Districts around the country offered free meals to all during the pandemic, per USA Today, but many are charging again. Maine approved similar legislation this summer, also taking effect in the new school year. The state basically will cover the cost over the amount of federal reimbursement. Officials said they want to take away the stigma associated with qualifying for meal assistance, as well as combat hunger generally, per WCSH.

Another goal is to improve learning. For many students, the school meal is the most nutritious one of their day, advocates say. "The reality is when you're hungry, when you have those kinds of things going through your head—it doesn't allow you to concentrate," said Justin Strasburger of Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit that wrote the first version of the legislation. The School Nutrition Association wants Congress to take the program national. Good nutrition "improves academic outcomes. (It) reduces trips to the nurse's office. It provides equity to all students," a spokesperson said. (More school lunches stories.)

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