This week is National School Lunch Week, a time to recognize the important role that School Nutrition Programs play in reducing food insecurity, supporting academic achievement, and, as a recent study found, providing children throughout the U.S. with healthy meals.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have been able to offer free school meals to all students through waivers from the U.S Department of Agriculture, allowing every child to experience the educational and health benefits linked to school meals. Understanding that offering free school meals to all children needs to continue after the pandemic, California and Maine passed legislation to establish free school meals for all students, regardless of household income, as a permanent part of the school day.
California was the first state to pass School Meals for All legislation. A state budget surplus, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, and strong support from legislative leaders made it possible. A recent article in The New York Times, What to Know About California’s Free School Lunch Program, provides additional details. Because California has the largest population of public school students, approximately 12 percent of children in the U.S. now have access to free school meals through this state legislation alone.
California State Senator and Chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee Nancy Skinner noted, “We provide our students free textbooks, access to computers, and other learning tools, so it only makes sense that we would provide free school meals as well. School Meals for All is a win-win for students, for schools, and for our economy.”
At the same time that California had been working on their School Meals for All legislation, Maine had been advancing similar legislation, which passed just days after California’s. Maine’s School Meals for All legislation created statutory language in the budget for all students in Maine to receive school meals at no cost. It also established a Meals for Students Fund and seeded the fund with $10 million. Advocacy for the remaining funds for the program is ongoing. The legislation passed with strong bipartisan support.
Maine Senate President Troy Jackson commented, “As someone who grew up in a family that struggled at times to make ends meet, I am incredibly proud of School Meals for All. I believe it’s the most significant piece of legislation that we have dealt with ever here in the Maine legislature.”
California and Maine’s recent legislation shows there is support for Healthy School Meals for All from coast to coast. Equally important is the proof that Healthy School Meals for All is a viable policy option. But free school meals for all in only two states is not enough. As we celebrate National School Lunch Week, let’s spotlight the many benefits of healthy school meals while advocating for increasing and expanding access to all students so that every child can start their day ready to learn.