(CNN)California will permanently begin providing free school meals for students this fall in a move that many advocates are praising as a big step toward ending food insecurity.
California will begin permanently offering free meals to all public school students this fall
The state says it will be the first in the nation to make free meals permanent for all public school students, regardless of their family's income.
"No questions. No stigma. ALL California kids now have access to free meals at schools," California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted last week, linking to an article announcing the news.
Almost 60% of California's 6.2 million students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in the 2019-2020 school year, according to School Meals for All, a coalition made up of more than 200 organizations that has pushed for funding in the state budget to gain momentum.
In the last year, the pandemic's financial fallout pushed child hunger to record levels, even in the richest US counties.
"Right now, nearly 20% of all California households -- and 27.3% of Latinx households with children and 35.5% of Black households with children -- report food insecurity," School Meals for All said in a news release last month. "This is double pre-pandemic rates, impacting about 8 million Californians."
Universal free lunch programs ensure no one falls through the cracks and eliminate the stigma associated with qualifying for free or reduced-price meals because of family income, the coalition said.
"California has made history," Kat Taylor, co-founder of the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation and co-sponsor of School Meals for All, said in a news release. "As the first state in the nation to adopt universal school meals, California is giving kids a better shot at growing up healthy and ready to succeed."
School officials across the state also commended the news.
"This is a win for our schools, families, and students," Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, said in a statement in School Meals for All's news release.
Trieste Huey, food service director of Fontana Unified School District, said "California's leadership to feed every hungry child should be a model for the rest of our nation."
"I have seen how stigma can keep students from eating school meals, even when the alternative is going hungry," Huey said in a statement in the news release. "School Meals for All will not only eliminate school meal debt, it will provide much-needed relief to struggling families experiencing daily stress and stigma around feeding their kids."
According to School Meals for All, "the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers that have enabled schools to provide free meals to all students during the pandemic are set to expire at the end of the 2021--22 school year, at which point California's public schools will be reimbursed for providing universal school meals."
California will invest "$650 million in ongoing funds by 2022-23 to support universal free school nutrition, including access to two free meals every day for all students, and $150 million to improve kitchen infrastructure and nutritional training," Newsom's office said in its news release.
The meals program is part of a $123.9 billion education package that also includes free pre-kindergarten for all children, expanded after-school and summer programs, and adding more staff.