‘The kids are just happier’: could California’s universal school meal program start a trend?

Parents, teachers and anti-hunger advocates hail new free-meal system, saying it improves academic performance and wellbeing

Before California became the first state to implement a universal meals program for its 6.2 million public school students, Alyssa Wells would keep granola bars in her classroom for students who complained of being hungry.

When the new program began in August at Foussat elementary school in Oceanside, California, which is primarily attended by Latino students from low-income families, the teacher noticed immediate changes in her students. “The kids are eating way more and they’re more focused, eager to learn and they’re just happier,” she said. “They’ve got one less thing to worry about.”

In San Diego county, where Oceanside is located, more than 14%, or 100,000 children, are food insecure, with a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Parents, educators, school officials and anti-hunger organizations say the program – which serves all kids regardless of family income – will also improve school performance and remove the stigma associated with free and reduced price lunches. California has the country’s largest population of public school students, which now means that about 12% of American children have access to free breakfast and lunch through this state legislation, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus. Maine passed a similar universal meals program right after California.

Another teacher, Sydnee Trelease, said Foussat students were especially interested in fresh fruits and the salad bar. “There’s different food they may not be used to,” she said, “and because it’s free, it gives them a chance to expand their palate without feeling pressure.”

The rollout of California’s new program comes after Joe Biden announced a goal to end hunger by 2030 and as the Biden administration prepares to host the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the first of its kind since 1969, on 28 September.

Levels of food insecurity and hunger have barely improved in the past two decades, with major spikes linked to high unemployment during the Great Recession and first year of the Covid pandemic. Food insecurity is directly linked to poverty and last year, more than 5 million households – the equivalent of one in 10 American families – skipped meals and cut portion sizes because they couldn’t afford enough food.

Despite these alarming numbers, in 2021, Covid relief programs such as child tax credits, an expansion of food stamps and universal free school meals actually helped cut hunger in households with children to the lowest level on record.

In the long term, eradicating hunger can only be achieved by tackling the root causes of poverty, but experts say universal school meals for all are an important part of trying to reach that goal. Congressional Democrats have been pushing for legislation to make such support permanent, but the politics are complicated.

“Increased food security helps children succeed academically and break the cycle of poverty,” said Gary Sloan, chief US operations officer at the non-profit Feed the Children. “It also allows parents to reallocate these financial resources to provide food and essentials for their home.”

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