California becomes first state to offer free school meals for all students regardless of family income

For the past several decades, state and federally-funded public schools across the nation have offered free or reduced-price meals for students from families living in poverty or with low incomes, respectively, while students from families with average or greater income were required to pay for their meals at school.

Starting this fall, however, California will become the first state ever to offer free meals, both breakfast and lunch, to all students regardless of their family income level, The Sacramento Bee reported.

That unprecedented change was the result of an education funding measure known as Assembly Bill 130, which was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) last year.

Family income no longer a factor for free school meals

According to the California Department of Education, the Universal Meals Program is an expansion of the already existing National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program established at the federal level, and its primary purpose is to “include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for, not just needy children, but all children each school day.”

As part of this new program, a provision mandates that schools and districts designated as “high poverty” — where 40 percent or more were eligible for free or reduced-price meals — will be required to apply for federal aid, while a separate provision allocates state funds as reimbursement to cover any shortfall in funding not covered by federal funds.

The Bee noted that this universal free meals program applies to all of the state’s public school districts as well as county offices of education and charter schools.

Some districts got “head start” on free meals program

While the provision of free meals to all students in California this coming school year will be a new thing for the vast majority of schools and students, some school districts in the state reportedly already got a “head start” on implementing the universal meals program.

According to the local ABC affiliate in Los Angeles, the Merced Union High School District is one of those that had already begun to offer free breakfast and lunch for all students regardless of family income levels.

One of the high school students in that district named Yohan expressed his gratitude at not having to pay for his lunch meal any longer, and told the outlet, “I remember when I was in elementary school I had to pay for lunch and I really didn’t like that, it’s nice to know that this benefits everyone overall.

Other states and cities doing the same thing

USA Today reported that California is the first state to offer free school meals for all students, but the state won’t be alone in that regard for very long, as Maine recently approved a similar law that will also go into effect for this coming school year.

Likewise, the outlet noted that several major cities across the U.S. — including Boston, Chicago, and New York — also offer free meals for all students in schools within their respective jurisdictions.

To be sure, this program will be welcomed by countless low- and middle-income families struggling to afford food amid historically high inflation, but that said, it must be kept in mind that nothing provided by the government is ever truly “free” and that it will be the taxpayers of California who ultimately will foot the bill to provide these costless meals for all students in the state.

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