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California will become the first state to offer free school lunches to all students
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California will become the first state to offer free school lunches to all students

The state recently implemented the Universal Program to address rising food insecurity. The program was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in July.

Image Source: Peter Cade / Getty Images
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Food prices, inflation and food insecurity are on the rise in California, and to address this, the state's policymakers developed the Universal Meals program. The scheme will, among other things, provide free meals to all children attending school. This is a big win for educational districts in the state, where 1 in 5 residents currently struggle with food insecurity. Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) was one of the first school districts to pilot the program and it has proven successful so far. The Universal Meals program is a part of Assembly Bill 130, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in July, ABC 7 News reports.

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At MUHSD, schools have already started offering free meals for both breakfast and lunch, taking the pressure off students so they can focus on their classes. According to MUHSD's Director of Nutritional Services Erin Tassey, health and equity are top priorities for the school district. Tassey stated in an interview with the news outlet, "When a student would come through a lunch line and they were considered to be a free student, it would create definitely a barrier with getting meals during the day." Now, students do not have to worry about where their next meal will come from and will have access to at least two nutritionally viable meals every day.

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Yohan Zuzlewski, a student at the district, previously paid for his school lunch. He is grateful to be able to save his money during the school week. "I remember when I was in elementary school I had to pay for lunch and I really did not like that," he told ABC 7 News. "It is nice to know that this benefits everyone overall." Last Thursday, he ate a filling meal of pizza made with whole grain bread at no cost.

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The Universal Meals program is powered by both state and federal funds. According to the California Department of Education, the scheme is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP). It features three distinct pillars. First, the program expands California’s State Meal Mandate to include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for not just needy children, but all children each school day. Second, high-poverty schools are expected to participate in a federal provision. Third, the California State Legislature will allocate funds to provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program. Anyone interested in learning more about the program can tune in to a listening session webinar hosted by the Nutrition Services Division (NSD). Information on how to register for the session can be found by clicking the link here.

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