By Ali Tadayon, EdSource
Egg white breakfast wraps, vegetarian ramen, gumbo, glazed carrots and organic cheeseburgers aren’t just trendy restaurant offerings — they’re on some of the breakfast and lunch menus at California schools.
With an influx of state and federal funding aimed at expanding access to school meals, California districts are ramping up food production, upgrading menus and using more fresh, healthy ingredients than before. School meals will continue to be free for all California students, as they have been since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Education leaders such as Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho hope that by ensuring all students get fed for free while at school, and improving the quality of meals, districts can combat food insecurity experienced by families in their area.
“It’s a human right to have your child fed every single day, no questions asked,” Carvalho said at a recent news conference. “So bring your children to school early enough for them to benefit from breakfast, tell them to walk the line and benefit from the free lunch and let’s enjoy it.”
Carvalho said his favorite new item on LAUSD’s menu was the kung pao chicken, which has a honey glaze and comes with brown rice and broccoli. He also tasted the district’s new cinnamon rolls, ramen bowls, smoothies, and yogurt and fruit breakfast bowls and said he enjoyed them all.
The 2022-23 school year will be the first that California, along with Maine, Vermont and a few other states are promising to provide every child with free breakfast and lunch. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students. Before then, districts were only reimbursed for feeding low-income students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.
The USDA’s universal meal program sunsets at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, though it will still reimburse districts for meals for low-income students. Starting this school year, California and the other states have taken it upon themselves to pick up the remainder of the bill to provide free school meals to all students. Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would expand students’ access to free school meals, and the USDA is increasing its reimbursement rates for free meals. The USDA has also invested millions in programs to promote partnerships between schools and farms, as well as to support districts to improve the quality of school meals.
In 2021-22, California lawmakers committed to allocating $650 million each year to the universal free meal program, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 budget to supplement state meal reimbursements to districts. The 2022-23 budget provided an extra $600 million toward a grant program to upgrade schools’ kitchen infrastructure and $100 million for a grant program to promote the best food-procurement practices, such as buying California grown-produce and providing options for students with dietary restrictions.
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