School breakfast menus have featured croissant sandwiches and chocolate chip muffins, yogurt parfaits and fresh baked cinnamon rolls, scrambled eggs and pancakes.
At lunch: hamburgers and cheeseburgers, spicy chicken sandwiches and pizza, corndogs and hotdogs.
We know that more than half of California’s public school students have qualified for free and reduced price lunches. And that hungry kids don’t learn as well as kids with full bellies. And that free meals for all can ease any stigma clinging to kids who really need them.
This school year, California will embrace a statewide “Universal Meals Program” for all school children, regardless of need. We were the first in the nation to adopt such a plan, and Maine swiftly followed. It’s an expensive proposition:
• The Golden State spent $2.8 billion on school nutrition in 2018-19, when some 6.1 million students were enrolled.
• This year, it will spend more than $4 billion, even as enrollment is down some 8%, according to data from the California Department of Education.
• There’s another $700 million in grant funds available this year – $600 million for kitchen infrastructure upgrades, and $100 million for school food best practices.
Schools will vary on precisely how they implement the free-for-all program: Some will still offer items for sale, while others will not. In some places, kids will still be able to pay for meals, though my daughter’s district isn’t one of them.
We clearly see the positives in all this. But as the parent of a soon-to-be-middle schooler who can afford to pay for school lunches, we have tremendous guilt. Wouldn’t the money spent on my daughter’s meals be better spent providing extra academic help to kids who fell behind during the pandemic? Or on arts or science or sports programs?
And as the parent of a kid who has wrestled with weight issues — and the resident of a state where nearly one of every three children is overweight or obese — we worry. After classrooms reopened post-pandemic in 2021 and free meals were available, my kid channeled her inner, ever-ravenous, Scooby-Doo. Kid ate breakfast at home and packed lunch. Grabbed another breakfast at school and a bagged lunch as well. It was free!
When the scale (and her pediatrician) tipped us off that things had gone awry, we asked the school for help keeping her away from the free food. We were told that workers can’t deny food to kids who ask for it because they might not have enough to eat at home. Even when the evidence clearly suggests scarcity is not the issue.
Reality check No. 1
We’re not alone with our concerns.
“I would agree that it is best to think about extra expenditures of money in the context of what else might be done with that money,” Greg J. Duncan, distinguished professor of education at UC Irvine, said by email.
“And you list a crucial need — extra tutoring and other help for students who have fallen the furthest behind because of the pandemic. It is hard for me to imagine that the benefits of providing free meals to higher-income students outweigh the benefits that would come from a tutoring effort.”
UC Irvine professor of education Mark Warschauer doesn’t claim expertise here, but is inclined to agree. “On the face of things, yes, it seems wasteful and unnecessary to offer free meals to families such as mine, which can easily afford them,” he said by email. “On the other hand, here are some countervailing issues to consider.”
Such as: How much does it cost to maintain eligibility guardrails for a program that gives free meals to some but not to all? How does that compare to the extra cost of feeding everyone? How accurate is the roster of who’s eligible for a free lunch to begin with?
The state was unable to produce answers to those questions by deadline. But Warschauer points to studies that have found many students enrolled in free or reduced-price lunch programs are actually “income ineligible” — meaning their families earn too much to qualify — and many who are eligible don’t enroll at all.
Perhaps having to apply is a hurdle, or families don’t get enough information, or are reluctant to apply due to family immigration status and the like, or needing free food feels shameful to the kids who need it.
“It is difficult to set up a system that divides students into groups of ‘deserving’ and ‘not deserving’ of free meals,” said Duncan. “Our long-running system of ‘free or reduced-price lunch’ designation is cumbersome to implement and can be stigmatizing for low-income students.”
Reality check No. 2
On the food vs. tutoring conundrum, we’re told it’s not a matter of either/or. At least, not yet.
Breaking out funding for tutoring isn’t quite as simple as breaking out the nutrition numbers, California Department of Education spokesman Jonathan Mendick told us, as there isn’t a single line item to point to in the budget.
Instead, there are a number of programs where tutoring is one, but not the only, valid use of funds, he said. That includes the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program, established last year with $1 billion in ongoing funding, and increased to $4 billion this year with tutoring as an acceptable use; and the Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant program, at $7.9 billion.
Sara Cortez, an analyst with the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that the $7.9 billion Learning Recovery money can fund a variety of academic and social-emotional activities, including increased instructional time, tutoring and other academic services; additional instruction to students not on track to graduate; and addressing other barriers to learning.
Funding is based on the number of students who are English learners or low-income and is intended for learning recovery initiatives through 2027-28. As a condition of receiving money, each school must periodically submit expenditure reports, with a final report due on Dec. 1, 2029, she said.
The other block grant, the $4 billion Expanded Learning Opportunities Program funding, can be used for instructional materials and professional development related to visual and performing arts, school climate, culturally relevant books and other subject areas. Funds can also be used for operational staffing costs, as well as materials and equipment needed to keep schools safely open for in-person instruction during the pandemic, Cortez said.
Funding for that one is distributed on a per-student basis and will be available through 2025-26, with each local school board required to adopt a public plan for how the money will be spent.
What, exactly, these funds will be buying and precisely if and how they’ll help students who need help remains a matter of some controversy. Some parent groups complain that schools have failed to spend the money on the kind of high-quality, one-on-one tutoring that can reverse learning loss, and want to see that change.
As UCI’s Duncan noted, “It takes a lot of planning to pull off a high-quality tutoring effort.”
In the kitchen
Meantime, the push for universal — and healthier — meals is transforming school kitchens all over California.
In the Anaheim Unified High School District, kitchen infrastructure and training funds have bought new equipment and infrastructure ($1.3 million) and more training for food services employees (nearly $250,000).
“The intent of the funds was to increase access to or improve the quality of fresh and nutritious school meals,” Orlando Griego, director of food services, said by email.
The Santa Ana Unified School District got $1.4 million in kitchen infrastructure training (KIT) grants that went toward the purchase of tilt skillets and “combi ovens” — a combination of gas and steam — for its seven high school and middle school production kitchens, said spokesman Fermin Leal. The grant also helped pay for a cook-chill system and sprinkler system upgrade at its central kitchen.
Before you get too excited, some context: The district has more than 50 kitchens and dining areas, and the cost for one brand new kitchen at Saddleback High School exceeded $10 million.
All students can have free breakfast and lunch. At Santa Ana Unified, they’ll get one meal per student per meal time—not lots of seconds! — but officials wouldn’t check to see if kids brought extra food from home as well, Leal said.
On our concerns about children overeating, Anaheim’s Griego offered some advice.
“I would encourage open communication between the parent and child regarding eating habits if there are parents concerned with a child overeating,” he said. “The school meal program provides meals to all students and, as you mentioned, cannot deny a meal to a child. As with building any healthy habit, families should decide the best avenue for students to be fed and teach children to listen to their bodies.
“Other topics of discussion might include recognizing feelings of satiety and balanced nutrition. Additionally, we follow a style of service called ‘Offer vs. Serve,’ which allows students to select which food items they would like to take and consume. As long as the minimum requirement (three food groups and a fruit or vegetable) is taken, students have this choice.”
Reviewing the menu ahead of time with the child can help both parent and child decide the best route to a healthy and balanced meal, he said.
We’ve done all that. But my kid’s school lunch menu for the first week includes BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, mozzarella-filled breadsticks, Sloppy Joe burgers and beef chili with chips. Middle school orientation featured hot dogs and slushies.
If you believe, pray for salad.