Healthy Food for Hungry Minds

by Tia Shimada | March 7, 2020 | 1 Comment
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Timely Investments in School Meals

California is considering its most significant investment in school meals since 1975.

Governor Newsom’s proposed 2020-21 state budget includes $60 million in ongoing Prop. 98 funding to “improve the quality of subsidized school meals and encourage participation in federal and state subsidized school meal programs.”

Guest Comment
Tia Shimada

What is the best way for an investment in school meals to support the health, well being, and education of California's kids? The time is ripe to engage state leaders in meaningful conversations about increasing the reach and positive impacts of these programs.

Why This Matters: Stark Inequities and Basic Needs

Across California, at least two million children live in households that struggle with food insecurity. Children who experience food insecurity are at higher risk for a host of negative outcomes. School meals are an especially critical source of nutrition for these students and the many children in California whose families are struggling against poverty.

Participation in school meal programs can reduce the risks of food insecurity, improve academic achievement, boost attendance, and support positive classroom behavior. School meal programs are also known to reduce child poverty by helping families make ends meet.

Benefits of School Nutrition (Source: California Food Policy Advocates)

These effects are particularly important in California, where our rate of child poverty is the highest in the nation. Our students from low-income households face significant gaps in both educational opportunity and academic achievement compared to their higher income peers. Our students of color are also harmed by persistent structural inequities. Students of color, particularly Black and Latinx children, disproportionately live in under-resourced communities and face stark academic gaps compared to their white peers. Closing these gaps requires equity in access and opportunity, including the equitable distribution of resources like school meals.

Students Who Met or Exceeded Standards
(2018-19, All Grades, All Schools, Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments)

Student Group

English Language Arts/Literacy


Socioeconomically disadvantaged



Not socioeconomically disadvantaged



African American or Black



American Indian or Alaskan Native



Latino or Hispanic






Source: CAASPP

Importance and Limitations of Federal Nutrition Programs

California public schools, including charter schools, can receive federally funded reimbursements for serving meals to students through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. California schools can also receive state funding for meals served to low-income students.

However, the federal school meal programs define “low income” according to a nationwide measure — and that measure does not reflect true levels of need among California kids.

A family of four making more than $33,475 per year does not qualify to receive free school meals. Yet, as of 2018, an average family of four in California needed to make more than $80,000 per year to meet their basic needs, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. California’s relentlessly high cost of living means that federal eligibility criteria do not capture the real needs of our students. Likewise, federal reimbursement rates do not account for the real cost of operating school meal programs in California.

CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, provides monthly food benefits to individuals and families in low-income households. According to the MIT living wage calculator, an average family of four in California needs over $81,000 per year to meet basic needs. This is significantly more than the income limit for access to both CalFresh and school meals.

Universal School Meals

Beginning in 2014-15, some California schools gained access to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP — spelled out "cee-ee-pee" in conversation), a federally authorized option for providing breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students (i.e. universal meals). Beyond their benefits as a source of nutrition and academic support, universal meal programs can reduce stigma, prevent school meal debt, and eliminate meal shaming. For immigrant families, this approach can also help mitigate fears about applying for and participating in school meal programs. With CEP, everyone is offered two meals a day and no one has to enroll.

The implementation of CEP in California’s highest poverty schools was accelerated by the 2017 enactment of Senate Bill 138 (McGuire). Despite that success, many students and schools that could benefit from CEP are still missing out because the federal rules governing the program don’t match the realities of student need and operating costs here in California.

With targeted investments, the State could provide the benefits of CEP to more than 2,000 schools that collectively enroll more than 1 million students.

Why Provide Universal School Meals using the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)?

Prevent lunch shaming

State policies have been enacted to help protect students from incidents of “lunch shaming” when students accrue meal debt or do not have the funds to pay for a meal. Schools need resources to sustain these protective practices. CEP prevents school meal debt among students. Expanding CEP can help provide school nutrition programs with stable, predictable, and sustainable revenue streams.

Advance equity

School meals are a vital tool for advancing educational equity. Addressing the opportunity and achievement gaps affecting low-income students and students of color requires that we meet students’ most basic needs, including nutrition.

Make meals available to more students

New federal policies—both enacted and proposed—make it harder for low-income families to meet their basic needs, including food. Proposed federal rules to undermine participation in CalFresh, known federally as SNAP, are projected to decrease school meal participation. Finalized federal rules on public charge are also keeping our immigrant friends, families, and neighbors from accessing vital services, such as nutrition programs. Schools can, and should, serve as a safe harbor for all California kids. Making CEP more feasible for more California schools will help make that a reality.

Increase participation

CEP is known to increase student participation in meal programs. As participation increases, drawing down increased state and federal funding, schools can reinvest in meal programs through enhanced staff training, changes in food procurement, and updated equipment, among other expenses.

Why Now?

The Newsom administration’s proposed budget signals a long-awaited opportunity to invest in student health and learning through more effective school meal programs.

Senator McGuire (D-Healdsburg) has introduced SB 1417 and is championing an accompanying budget proposal to enable the implementation of universally free breakfast and lunch in schools where there is a substantial need among students but federal rules make the provision of CEP unattainable or unsustainable.

We look to Governor Newsom and the Legislature to invest in equity and to ensure that no student in need misses out on school meals learn, grow, and achieve at their fullest potential.

Tia Shimada is the Director of Programs for California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) and oversees the organization’s policy research agenda. In these roles, Tia is privileged to work alongside a team that is dedicated to improving the health and well being of Californians with low income by increasing access to nutritious, affordable food. She has more than a decade of experience developing and advancing policy change that equitably improves nutrition and decreases food insecurity for individuals and families struggling to meet their most basic needs.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Denise Dafflon March 10, 2020 at 10:17 am
Thank you for this post. I learned a lot. Yes, we need equity champions at the state level to be allies. Thank you for standing up with families that live below living wages and not qualifying for free lunches.
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