Free for all California students: At least two meals a day

Thanks to a government initiative started during the pandemic, students in public schools across California will continue to be able to get at least two free meals a day at school this school year.

Under California’s Universal Meals Program, all public school students in transitional kindergarten grades through grades 12 are entitled to free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their parents’ income. The Los Angeles Unified School District is doing even more to help, providing students with three free meals a day.

California is the first state to enact free school lunches for students served by public school districts, boards of education, and charter schools, whether or not they are eligible for the National School Lunch Program’s free or discounted meals.

The state launched a universal dining effort last year, with the federal government picking up most of the bill. This year, state law requires public schools (including charters) to provide all students with two “nutritious school meals” per school day, with state taxpayers footing the bill.

The Los Angeles Unified School District says more than 81% of its students come from families who qualify for the state school lunch program and may be affected by food insecurity. Nationwide, an estimated 60% of public school students qualify.

Before the pandemic, LA Unified families with incomes between $27,560 and $39,220 had to apply for the National School Lunch Program 30 days before the start of the school year to qualify for subsidized meals. But county officials argue that eligibility rules fail to take into account the city’s high cost of living and are preventing too many families from getting the help they really need.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 prompted a number of school districts to offer free meals with no strings attached.

While school campuses were closed during the first wave of the 2020 pandemic, many school districts continued to provide free meals to students as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The legislation allowed the US Department of Agriculture to grant waivers to schools across the country that allowed them to offer free meals to off-campus children.

LA Unified, in partnership with the Red Cross, went one step further and in March 2020 established 60 locations where families could pick up two free meals a day for their children, whatever their needs. As the next school year began in September, the state used its budget surplus and federal pandemic assistance to fund free meals for all students in all public schools, regardless of income level.

Now that the state is introducing the mandatory universal meals program, parents can rest assured that their children will receive at least two free, full meals in schools each day and will not have to bear the cost of preparing breakfast and lunch for them. All students are automatically enrolled in the program, although students are not required to attend. Instead, meals are served to students who ask for them.

Café LA, LA Unified’s food service division, says it currently exceeds USDA requirements for healthy and nutritious meals. The daily meals are low in sodium, contain no trans fats, nitrates or sulphites, and include fresh fruits and vegetables, the district says.

Students recently tested a meatball sub, a turkey ham and cheese croissant, and a mango smoothie, among other things.

About the Times Utility Journalism Team

This article is from the Times’ Utility Journalism team. Our mission is to be essential to the lives of people in Southern California by publishing information that solves problems, answers questions, and aids in decision making. We serve audiences in and around Los Angeles—including current Times subscribers and diverse communities whose needs have not been met by our coverage in the past.

How can we be useful to you and your community? Email Utility (at) or one of our journalists: Matt Ballinger, Jon Healey, Ada Tseng, Jessica Roy and Karen Garcia. Free for all California students: At least two meals a day

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