By state law, all public schools in California must provide at least one nutritionally adequate meal to students—however, many students eat more than one meal a day at school. Nearly four million students received meals from California’s public schools in the 2018–19 school year: close to 300 million breakfasts and well over 500 million lunches. With schools closed to reduce exposure to the new coronavirus, many students now lack ready access to these meals.
By federal law, low-income students (about $48,000 for a family of four in 2020) are eligible for free or low-cost school meals. Higher income students paid on average $0.98 for breakfast and $2.11 for lunch in 2017–18, according to the California Department of Education.
The vast majority of low-income students eat some or all breakfasts, lunches, or both at school. Free and reduced-price meals lower food insecurity, and according to the California Poverty Measure (CPM), meaningfully reduce poverty among families with public school students. Without school meals, the share of students living in deep poverty would be 17% higher; increases for students in less severe poverty would be 2% to 8%.
With school closures in place for several weeks, school districts have already designated sites where families can pick up meals for children. In higher poverty areas, all children can access meals regardless of enrollment in the local school or eligibility for meal programs because authorities have temporarily relaxed federal regulations.
During closures, Governor Newsom assured that schools will continue to receive state funds to operate and requested efforts focus on certain areas, including providing school meals. However, access remains a concern. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District lists 64 “grab-and-go” sites for its roughly 1,000 schools. San Diego Unified School District has 13 sites for 181 schools, as of March 16. Elk Grove, with 67 schools, has 34 sites for drive-through and grab-and-go meal services along with a mobile service for families with limited transportation.
With pandemic EBT (P-EBT), ATM-like cards pre-loaded with funds for groceries, the federal government is also helping low-income students replace missed school meals. The cards will cover the expected number of days that schools will be closed. For students whose families already receive monthly CalFresh benefits on EBT cards, funds can readily be added. For low-income students who do not already receive CalFresh (34% statewide), families must complete some paperwork—mainly electronically—to obtain an EBT card.
Because the reach of CalFresh varies across the state, barriers to getting P-EBT funds to students will also vary. Fortunately, the state already matches student data with their CalFresh, CalWORKs, and Medi-Cal data to automatically determine students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. If the state can use all existing sources of family income to provide P-EBT to students, they will reach more low-income students.
Ready access to meals influences student health, learning, and economic wellbeing. Robust access to free and reduced-price meals can decrease the stress low-income families are facing as efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 dampen economic activity.