California Becomes the First State to Offer Free Breakfast and Lunch to All Students

By Andrea Michel

SACRAMENTO––As students returned to schools at the start of this year’s fall term, they were greeted by a new change in lunchrooms: free breakfast and lunch for all students.

Though many cities across the country already have been offering free lunch for years, such as New York City since 2017, California has become the first to enact such a program statewide. Notably, Maine followed suit shortly after with its own free lunch program. 

Under the previous federal guidelines, a family of four had to have an annual income under $34,000 to qualify for free lunch, and for reduced-cost lunch, the threshold was $48,000. These metrics do not take into consideration the relatively high cost of living in California and as such experts contend that the actual need for free or reduced lunch is much higher than the official numbers suggest. 

Currently, 60 percent of students utilize or qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, meaning an overwhelming majority of Californian families rely on this program to feed their children. In terms of population, 6.2 million Californian students will benefit from the introduction of this program. 

The implementation of the free breakfast and lunch program comes as the state is experiencing an unexpected budget surplus due to the pandemic funding from the federal government. For the current 2021-2022 school year, the program will be funded by a $262 million surplus, with $54 million allocated. 

The additional costs will be covered by the USDA, which has promised to reimburse states for expenditures related to the pandemic until the summer of 2022. After support from the federal government tapers out, from the 2022-2023 school year onwards, the state is estimated to spend $650 million annually on the free breakfast and lunch program. 

One of the main proponents of the program is California State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D- Berkeley), who previously introduced SB 364, a bill aimed at tackling this very issue. She celebrated the move, stating, “We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you’re hungry you cannot learn well.” 

She went on to say, “The whole point of school is learning, and everything we can do to create an environment that allows children to thrive and learn is what we need to do.”

Perhaps most notably, the passage of this program has seen near-universal bipartisan support from both California Democrats and Republicans. 

State Sen. Brian Dahle (R- Bieber) applauded the program, remembering a time he saw children from his kids’ school taking food from the school’s cafeteria because “for a lot of them that was their dinner and they were sneaking it or taking it off someone’s plate when they didn’t finish it.” 

This anecdotal example offered by Sen. Dahle hits at the root of a problem this free breakfast and lunch initiative hopes to eliminate: the shame that can accompany the use of such government programs. It is a complication lawmakers and advocates are hoping is eliminated with streamlining of the program. 

Unlike in previous years where students’ families were required to fill out documentation to receive the free and reduced lunch, that will no longer be a requirement. Due to the political climate in more recent years, families who qualify and would greatly benefit from the use of these programs have declined to apply for them out of either fear of revealing their immigration status or retribution for being on any kind of assistance. 

By making the free breakfast and lunch program free to all students throughout California, these concerns can be settled. However, while filling out documentation is not required, it is still encouraged by the districts so as to be able to make sure enough funds are allocated to their districts for the program.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Quite literally, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

    But it must come as a relief to some to know they no longer need to work to feed their families.  The gov’ment will do it for them.

    What’s next, free housing?

        1. David Greenwald

          Since the article states that it offers free lunches to students, I think that is correct.  By standard definition, free refers to a service or good that requires no money to the consumer.  It does not mean or imply that such service or good has no cost.

        2. Ron Oertel

          You are mistaken.

          I know for a fact that I’ve purchased an item, and received the second one “free”.

          Now, that’s “free”.

          Also, I’ve learned that “the more you buy, the more you save”.  Quite often, receipts that I receive show just how much I’ve saved in larger print than the rest of the receipt. I don’t know about you, but I will gladly pay $1 to get $2 in “savings”.

          I may soon be attending a seminar from a timeshare company, in which my hotel stay will be free.

          Also, I would never pay $4 for a gallon of gasoline, but I might pay $3.99.99

          Obviously, you don’t have a business degree or background.  🙂

  2. Bill Marshall

    It does not mean or imply that such service or good has no cost.

    Yes, it does involve a cost… and that gets to “who pays” and whether it is “disparate’… all taxpayers will pay… some will get the “benefit” some will not… some have no kids in school in CA… but will pay, but “it’s for the kids” right?  Some will have kids in school, but not agree with WHAT the schools offer on the menu, and will feed them themselves… same cost, zero benefit… but it is for the “other kids”, right?

    No consideration for “need”, and the “government” gets to decide what food is offered… regardless of parental choice, cost, etc.  Very ‘progressive’ of you… parents will insist on whether the choices are a vegetable (RR said catsup was a vegetable, in spite of sugar content), or things like meat (“we’re vegans”), things processed where peanuts have been processed (severe food allergies, requiring epi-pens) Etc., etc., etc., etc.

    Or, will ‘opt out’ but still pay the price tag…

    Yet,  you post

    You’re the only one I know who can turn a free lunch program into a negative

    I support making sure kids have food/nutrition if parental units cannot or will not provide…

    What if school districts go to ‘cheap’ foods… and/or ‘sugary sodas’, fatty meats, etc.?

    You have often cited “fast foods” discriminate against POC’s… obesity, diabetes, etc.

    Alan M made a legitimate point… you ‘dismissed’ it… you “own that”… to what purpose, except your own, is unclear…

    I say again,

    I support making sure kids have food/nutrition if parental units cannot or will not provide…

    I have no clue why you wrote

    You’re the only one I know who can turn a free lunch program into a negative.

    Dismissive, or perhaps espousing that all kids (whether financially challenged or not) are entitled to free meals according to your or other ‘fussy’ expectations, at the full expense of others?  “it’s for the kids, right?”

    I do not support the law, although I support the intent that kids should have good nutrition… the law actually work to cross-purposes… but it’s now law… I suggest David, 10-15 years you own up to your support, and the consequences… take responsibility for what you espouse…



  3. Alan Miller

    You’re the only one I know who can turn a free lunch program into a negative.

    You obviously don’t know a single fiscal conservative.

    We as a country witnessed how fascism starts (see cancel culture).  Now we are witnessing how socialism starts (see free stuff).

    Previously, America worked by balancing back and forth.  At a certain point, when those in power are the ‘give us more stuff’ party, the majority will just vote for those who give them the most stuff, and the scale itself tips and falls over.  The free lunch is just another step . . .

    1. Ron Oertel

      “Tax the Rich!”

      Though honestly, that never seems to work as envisioned. Probably for a number of reasons.

      Seems like ultimately, one can only hope that they might be philanthropists. (A lot of them are, actually.)

      Turns out that rolling around in piles of money might not be all that satisfying.

    2. Ron Oertel

      My view of the rich has probably been corrupted by Mr. Howell and Mr. Drysdale.  (Though I’m not quite sure if Drysdale actually “made” it.)

      But honestly, who doesn’t like them both, regardless?

      For sure, “Jed” kept his personal integrity intact, right up until the time that he opposed Ms. Hathaway – in a real election.

      Sounds like they reconciled, though.

  4. Bill Marshall

    Alan M… am thinking we’re on same page (see my earlier comments)…

    I am a social left of pure ‘center’…. and a fiscal right of pure ‘center’… a person most all ‘love to hate’… but that’s me, no reflection on you… your choice to categorize yourself, or not…

    It seems the ‘left’/progressives want to put all ‘burdens’ on everyone else but themselves… the ‘right’/conservatives want no ‘burdens’ on themselves.   Two sides of same coin.

    Then, there are some of us (true minority), willing to do our best to support the ‘needy’/’disadvantaged’… but measured, depending whether the ‘need/disadvantaged’ status is by circumstances where they have near zero control, or are just doing ‘stupids’ and expecting society to bail them out… all ‘entitlement’, and no ‘personal effort’ required,,

  5. Ron Glick

    I used to keep a box of cereal in my classroom cabinet. If kids were hungry they could have a handful. I had a few kids that hit me up regularly. I knew one kid who would eat orange peels along with the orange. That kid was hungry!

    I remember reading about places where kids whose parents didn’t get the lunch bill paid got shut out completely or a cheap lunch. Then there was the story about the woman who lost her job for feeding kids who couldn’t pay.

    Some here act like  Dickensian villains.

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