January 23, 2022

Kristie To is a high school student who has been a leader in California’s school meals for all campaign. Kristie recently wrote an op-ed for Voices of OC, on the impact of free school meals on her and her family.  

The following is an interview with Kristie and the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) on the impact of the free school meals for all campaign in California, as well as her advice on how youth can effectively use their voice and get involved in free school meals for all campaigns across the country.  

Why are free school meals important for you and your family?  

My parents work full time as doctors. I have one older sister who is a full-time college student, so she’s not at home. It’s very difficult for me as a 16-year-old to plan nutritious meals and to make sure I am budgeting my time to plan all of my meals to bring to school.  

The implementation of the free school meals for all has taken so much stress off me and my parents because we can rely on the school — not only for providing school meals, but also providing nutritious meals.  

Many of my peers share the same opinions about the campaign, since a lot of them also have full-time working parents, and some don’t have the financial resources to pay for school meals. My peers also have expressed similar joy about free school meals for all, since we don’t have to worry about stressing out our parents or about what we are going to eat that day. It helps us do well in school and keeps us focused.  

What impact did California choosing to make school meals free for all students have on your life? 

Having free school meals for all in California has definitely contributed to my sense of community at school.  

Many of the close friends that I have made at school have been through the lunch line. I see so many new demographics of students getting their lunch and snacks at break now. I feel that, when schools offer meals at no charge to all students, it unites people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In the cafeteria, we talk about what’s on the menu and what we are excited to eat that day.  

In addition, because of this campaign, I do a lot of legislative policy work. I work with statewide student groups to co-sponsor and write senate and assembly bills regarding various topics such as socioeconomic equity, mental health, racial justice, school safety and environmental awareness. I present these bills to the Senate Education Committee and State Board of Education. 

 In just speaking with all the legislators that I work closely with, I know that California is setting an example for other states who have not yet implemented similar school meals for all legislation.  

How did you get involved in California’s school meals for all campaign?  

I am part of an organization called the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), which was created by the California Department of Education. In CASC, I am the statewide development director, I serve on the organization’s state council, and I serve on its board of directors.  

Due to my involvement with CASC, I was contacted by a representative of the Center of Ecoliteracy. We had several meetings to talk about my  positive experience with free school meals. We eventually decided to coauthor an op-ed together about the campaign in California. To my surprise, after  the op-ed was published, it was posted by various legislators and political figures, like the First Partner of California Jennifer Newsom. It was also posted by the California Board of Education and many national organizations, including FRAC. 

I am also currently working with the State Department of Education and with Jennifer Newsom about my continuing role in this campaign.  

As a student, what were some of the highlights of participating in this campaign?  

As a student leader, one of the things that I value the most is student voice. I am always looking for opportunities to encourage my peers to use their voice.  

Personally, I also am looking to mobilize myself to use my voice for positive change. Participating in the campaign was an outlet for me to provide my input as a student who is directly affected by free school meals for all. 

For instance, my school is surrounded by an orchard that grows fruits and vegetables; yet, all the fruits and vegetables in our cafeteria are packaged. In the op-ed, I talk about implementing effective sustainability measures and making sure that schools have the resources they need to provide the best food for all their students.  

In the future, I hope to pursue a career in legislative policy, education policy, or public policy. Getting a head start and working with adults, as well as using my voice and talking about the policies and bills that are involved in the making of this campaign was really exciting for me.

How do you think advocacy campaigns can involve youth effectively? 

 I am very passionate about social justice, so I kept talking and writing about issues that I wanted to get involved with as an advocate.  

Many youth do not realize the voice that they have and the impact that they can make. I think our students are our future and our voices should be shaping the mindsets of decision makers with regards to legislation. 

Are there specific activities that are good opportunities for students to get more involved? 

I think it’s important to get involved in organizations that have a mission and a purpose greater than oneself. By being part of CASC, I am able to see my ideas come to life and get experience in a professional work setting.  

It’s important for students to seek initiatives and extracurricular activities that have a greater power or force behind them. That way students will be mobilized, be able to voice their ideas, and see the implementation of their ideas.  

I think it’s important to stress to youth that if they don’t see an activity being offered in their school or in their community, it’s feasible to make your own. It’s super powerful for students who want to get involved in the school meals for all campaign to take initiative and to bring that advocacy to their school and to their community by creating a club on campus,  or some sort of community initiative or project.   

How can we get more people to raise their hand for HSMFA? 

The number one way you can get high school students to raise their hand for Healthy School Meals for All (HSMFA) would be to educate them of the intentions behind why these bills and policies are put into place. I think it’s important to give students the entire story behind the effects that they are seeing at their schools.  

Frankly, many of my peers didn’t even realize that this campaign was put into place; they just started seeing the positive impacts of it, but didn’t really know why there were free school meals. It’s important to talk about the implementation, and the story, and the work behind this campaign.  

Another way to encourage students to raise their hand is by having webinars where people can ask questions and talk to those people in the forefront of this conversation, and those behind the creation of free school meals. This would provide a clearer understanding of how beneficial free school meals are for students and their families. Then, states will pick up on California’s policies and follow in their footsteps.  

What are your concluding thoughts?  

I am really passionate about free school meals for all because of how closely it has impacted my family and my schoolmates and has really touched my life. I hope to see more students becoming involved in using their voice and joining community initiatives, projects, and organizations. I hope students seek opportunities to support policies that impact them, like free school meals for all impacts me.  

Watch FRAC’s video on the Healthy School Meals for All Campaign.  

Learn more on FRAC’s microsite