The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves low-cost or free lunches to nearly 30 million children every school day. The NSLP was established by President Harry Truman in 1946. President John F. Kennedy created National School Lunch Week (NSLW) in 1962 to promote the importance of a healthy school lunch in a child's life and the impact it has inside and outside of the classroom. NSLW is celebrated annually during the second full week in October.
This National School Lunch Week, we celebrate California's universal school meals program. With 1 in every 6 children facing hunger in the U.S., California is the first state to promise all 6 million public school students free school meals. Proponents of California's new program believe that 63% of California's public school students participate in the NSLP yet estimate that the need for free meals is much higher.
California's universal school meals program will go into effect in the 2022-23 school year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already committed to paying for school meals for all public school students in the United States through the 2021-22 school year. California's new program will continue this practice for public school students in the state.
California's universal school meals program ensures that all students will be offered breakfast and lunch at their school, which is essential to learning. For many students, these breakfasts and lunches are their only guaranteed meals each day. Research shows that when children are able to eat a healthy breakfast and lunch at school, they experience less hunger and lower rates of obesity, achieve higher academic performance, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems.
The program is being funded through the state budget and calls for $650 million through the Proposition 98 fund each year to reimburse school districts starting in 2022, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year to supplement state meal reimbursements.
Before the pandemic, districts were only reimbursed for feeding students who were enrolled in the NSLP. Advocates of California's universal school meals program said being able to feed students without having to check whether they qualified for free lunches allowed districts to serve more families at a time when many faced hunger and hardship.
Previously, as part of the NSLP application process, families had to disclose their household income, how many people lived in the household, their children's immigration status, and if their children were homeless or runaways. Some families feared giving out that information, and students may have felt embarrassed to receive a free meal while others paid for it. California's universal school meals program will significantly reduce the number of families that are afraid or embarrassed to apply for and receive free meals.
However, districts will still require families to fill out household income eligibility forms under California's universal school meals program. In addition to income information, these forms will require families to provide information regarding students who are English learners, foster children, and homeless youth. This information is crucial for districts to receiving additional state funding based on the number of low-income students, English learners, foster children, and homeless youth they serve.
Many families may not appreciate the importance of filling out these forms, since there is no income eligibility requirement for free meals under California's new program. In order to remedy this, all districts should reach out to their families directly, explaining why it was important for families to submit the requested information and that the funding provided by the state based on this information will determine how much money goes to the classroom and to benefitting their children.
This Parker & Covert LLP post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Legal issues and principles apply differently, sometimes substantially, depending on context and facts. Review or receipt of this post does not create an attorney-client relationship.