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key takeaway

California’s universal school meal program ensures all students have access to nutritious meals at school regardless of family income. This program combats childhood hunger, simplifies administration for schools, and has inspired similar initiatives in other states.

No child in California should go hungry. While families across the country face significant price increases in groceries and other basic needs, California schools have played a central role in making sure that children have access to nutritious meals regardless of their families’ income level. 

In the 2022-23 school year, California became the first state to provide free school meals to any child regardless of whether they were eligible for the free or reduced-price meals as defined by the federal government. Since then, seven other states have passed similar policies, recognizing the benefits universal school meals provide to families and schools. 

California policymakers should continue to protect universal school meal programs to support children’s health and well-being. Limiting free school lunches to families who meet a certain income threshold would be harmful to children’s health and would also increase the administrative burden for schools.

WHat is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In contrast, food security is when all people have access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times.

1. Reverting to the Federal School Meal Program Would Exclude Many Families Facing Food Insecurity

The California Universal School Meals Program (UMP) has expanded access to school meals to all children, well beyond what the federal government requires. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), the two federally funded school meal programs, cap income eligibility at 130% and 185% of the federal poverty line (FPL), respectively. In California, that would mean that a family of four must have a total income of at most $39,000 for the children to qualify for free school meals and at most $55,500 to qualify for reduced-price meals in the current school year. However, 44% of food-insecure families in California had incomes above 185% of the FPL in 2022.1Based on Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey for 2022 downloaded from IPUMS. As shown in the chart below, families with incomes above the threshold experience varying degrees of food insecurity.

2. The California Universal Meals Program Can Help Reduce Child Hunger

Income is not a perfect measure of whether a child is food insecure because family circumstances can change, and often do, particularly in a state with a high cost of living like California. In a 2022 survey, parents reported that the UMP has saved them money and time as well as reduced family stress. The UMP has ensured that no child has to worry about where their next meal will come from, regardless of their family situation.

3. School Meals Support Children’s Health and Learning

School meals promote good nutrition and improve health and learning, according to research. Children who participate in school meal programs are more likely to consume fruits, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch, reducing the risk of nutrient deficiencies which can be harmful to health. These programs are also instrumental in supporting students’ health and well-being, with studies showing that free or reduced-price school lunches help lower rates of poor health and obesity. In addition, research shows that school meal programs help students learn and succeed in school through improved attendance, student behavior, academic performance, and long-term educational attainment.

4. The Universal School Meals Program Reduces Stigma Around Free Meals

Moving away from a means-tested approach reduces stigma around free meals, which helps the program reach more students. Research has shown that reducing the stigma associated with means-tested programs increases participation. The UMP has been successful in increasing breakfast and lunch participation as well as reducing the stigma around free school meals and unpaid meal debt. When food access is not tied to poverty status, students are less likely to shy away from grabbing a meal if they need one.

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5. The Universal Meals Program Reduces Administrative Burden On Schools

The UMP reduces meal debt by making all school meals free to students. Schools are required to take on extra administrative tasks to account for meal debt, which, according to the California Department of Education (CDE), include collecting and documenting:

  • Evidence of efforts to collect unpaid meal charges in accordance with the CDE or local unpaid meal charge policy; 
  • Financial documentation showing when the unpaid meal charges became an operating loss; and 
  • Documentation showing when the repayment plan was agreed to by all parties.

Additionally, meal debt is an operating loss for schools. Thus, without UMP, school districts would likely face challenges with both the financial and administrative burdens of increased meal debt.

The UMP requires high-poverty schools to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which significantly reduces school meal administrative burden. CEP is a federal program that provides alternate meal counting and collection procedures. Namely, CEP schools do not collect meal applications, do not conduct verification activities, and do not classify meals as free, reduced-price, or paid. As a result, school meal administration is far less burdensome and many overhead costs are eliminated. Before the UMP requirement, only 24 percent of schools participated in CEP. 

what is meal debt?

Meal debt occurs when students who are not certified to receive free school meals do not have enough cash in hand or in their school meals account to pay for their meals or for the “reduced-price” copayment. School districts set their own policy for unpaid school meal fees.

As of the 2022-23 school year, participation increased to 51 percent, prompted by the onset of UMP. However, as part of the CEP application, California schools must calculate an identified student percentage (ISP) reflecting the proportion of students that are directly certified for meals at no cost on the basis of their participation in safety net programs (i.e., CalFresh and CalWORKs) and other characteristics (such as foster youth). Some California schools face challenges with correctly calculating the ISP and are therefore not able to fully maximize the federal benefit.  Therefore, with UMP and its associated CEP participation requirement, more schools may benefit from the administrative efficiency that comes with program participation but additional technical assistance from CDE could ensure schools maximize benefits from CEP participation.

California should continue to lead the way in making sure any child who needs a meal can obtain one. The California Universal School Meals Program not only supports family and child well-being and effective school administration, but it also may promote cost savings if the state can maximize the number of meals federally reimbursed at the free rate. State policymakers should continue investing in this program to maximize federal reimbursements and ensure all children have access to high-quality nutritious meals. By making sure all children receive proper nutrition at school, state leaders can help alleviate food insecurity and support children’s health and well-being.

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    Based on Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, Current Population Survey for 2022 downloaded from IPUMS.

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