Erin Primer, director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, recalled a single mother who made $50,000 a year calling her, pleading to join the program.
“I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, but you don’t qualify,’ and I remember her crying,” Primer told me.
California’s expanded free lunch program doesn’t technically begin until next school year, but it’s basically in effect already because of the pandemic. When schools closed last year, the federal government provided funding to offer free meals to all students in an effort to make it easier to reach needy children.
Primer told me that the number of children picking up school lunch has more than doubled at some schools in her district. She said it’s most likely because of both newly eligible students and those who had always qualified but not taken advantage.
Before the policy change, children may have felt awkward or shameful picking up a school lunch because of what it said about their family’s income. For high schoolers, it may have not been the cool thing to do when wealthier classmates wanted to eat off-campus.
Families also felt stigma. Some had been reluctant to fill out the needed paperwork because they didn’t want to rely on government benefits. Others worried they would have to reveal their immigration status, though that wasn’t the case.
By offering free meals for all, no questions asked, these roadblocks are eliminated.
Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition services at Palm Springs Unified School District, told me that when her school began offering free lunch, the school nurse noticed a change: Fewer students came in for headaches and nausea, which had apparently been caused by skipping meals.
There’s plenty of research that shows that eating breakfast and lunch is linked with a reduction in nurse visits, improved attendance and better test scores. Not to mention that children who don’t eat tend to distract the rest of the class, affecting others’ learning experiences, too.
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