In summary

Children across California need the governor and California lawmakers to make smart, equitable investments in free school meals.

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By Mayra E. Alvarez, Special to CalMatters

Mayra E. Alvarez is president of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization,

All children should have the opportunities and resources they need to pursue their dreams. California public schools can foster those dreams, but not every child in California gets what they need at school. 

This year, our state has a critical opportunity to connect all students with nutritious school meals that support health and wellbeing.  

Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has issued temporary waivers allowing schools to serve meals free of charge to all children. Those meals, alongside other forms of COVID relief, have been essential for families to persevere through the worst of the pandemic. 

Nutritious meals from school are especially important to millions of California immigrant families who are systematically shut out of many other basic supports and services. The clock is ticking: federal school meals waivers will expire at the end of the coming school year. We must take action now to continue the fight against childhood hunger.

California is poised for action. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a budget proposal that includes $150 million in ongoing funding for schools to serve meals free of charge to all students through options such as the Community Eligibility Provision. The governor’s proposed investment means thousands of schools could serve free breakfast and lunch, connecting millions of children with the nutritious meals they need and leveraging more than $1 billion in federal funding. 

Now California’s legislative leaders must act boldly and seize the moment. A state investment to maximize Community Eligibility Provision would help more schools in under-resourced communities meet the fundamental needs of their students. Offering free meals to all students is necessary in a state like ours where the high cost of living means many children who experience hardship will never qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the usual nationwide income criteria. 

For all of us who work on behalf of children in California, this is a story we know all too well: California families make too much to qualify for public programs, but not enough to make ends meet. 

Taking action now to maximize the Community Eligibility Provision through California’s budget would help ensure kids won’t lose access to nutritious school meals when federal waivers expire. Maximizing CEP isn’t just a matter of if school meals are served, it’s also a matter of how school meals are served. 

By investing in the Community Eligibility Provision, we mitigate stigma and shaming for students who need to access free meals. By investing in CEP, we ease administrative burdens, stabilize school nutrition budgets and support employees working to nourish our children. By investing in the Community Eligibility Provision, we target state dollars to children in chronically under-resourced communities and foster equitable access to health, wellbeing and opportunity. That’s the type of inclusive program we need for an inclusive California.

California is home to one of the world’s largest economies and the nation’s highest rate of child poverty. Before the onset of COVID-19, one in five California children lived in poverty. The public health crisis has deepened the existing inequities for families with low income and Black and Latinx Californians who are disproportionately burdened by the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. 

Schools across California understand the need to nurture and nourish their students by offering free meals to all. But the current funding framework often makes that approach financially unattainable or unsustainable. State investments to maximize the Community Eligibility Provision are a scalable, equitable approach to reaching all children with the meals they need to learn, grow and thrive. Pairing state dollars with available federal funding would make the Community Eligibility Provision a reality for more schools — and free school meals a reality for more students. 

With California rapidly moving to on-campus learning, the state reporting higher than expected revenues and federal dollars available for school meal programs, now is the time to act. Children across our state need the governor and California lawmakers to make smart, equitable investments in free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. 

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