Universal free lunch program is unnecessary

Mason Williams, Staff Writer

After the federal money for free lunches given to states during the pandemic expired, California’s new Universal Meal Program (UMP) was created under Assembly Bill 130 and introduced this year. 

According to the 2021-2022 California State Budget Summary for K-12 Education, the California state government created the UMP to “ensure that [free breakfast and lunch meals] are available to all children, and to reduce the stigma of free and reduced-price meals.” The budget summary also predicts that the state will spend an additional $650 million on this program annually. School districts are initially paying for the meals and then will later be reimbursed by the state.

Despite its good intentions, this mandate is illogical because it allocates surplus state funds that could go to other programs and allows people who can afford food to get free school meals. 

Starting this school year, all California school districts are required by the state to provide free breakfast and lunch meals for every single student. 

Prior to the creation of the UMP, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was in place, providing free and reduced-priced school lunches to students based on household income. For Westview students seeking subsidized lunches through this program, there was a straightforward online form that could be accessed via the school website. 

However simple, there was a major flaw in the program: only students whose before-taxes household income was $36,075 were eligible for free meals. The income was so low because the eligibility guidelines were determined by the federal government based on United States income. To use those numbers is unfair for Californians, where the median household income was $78,672 (2016-2019). This is higher than the United States’ median household income of $64,994 in the same years, according to the United States Census Bureau. The UMP makes up for that $14,000 difference because it feeds everyone that attends public schools in California. 

Feeding everybody is too much. The state should be devoting funds to students within our schools who truly need free meals.

To improve this, California should have instead implemented a program that targets poorer communities and raised the income cut-offs for free and reduced meals by creating an initiative similar to the USDA NSLP, but instead having eligibility be based on community-specific statistics. 

By not specifically targeting those in need, the state is unnecessarily throwing out money that could otherwise be put to better use. There should be a greater focus on improving basic educational facilities like our air conditioners that go out on the hottest days and our defaced restroom doors and the projectors that interrupt lessons by freezing or turning off. 

In trying to address the crucial question of how are kids supposed to learn if they’re hungry? we’ve neglected the important fact that most aren’t. 

According to Westview’s Food and Nutrition Area Supervisor Flora Biglaryan, in 2019, when students were getting free or reduced-priced lunches through the  USDA NSLP, 225 of 2,373 students were eligible for the program. Of these 225 students, on average, only 97 chose to receive free or reduced lunches every day. That’s less than 5 percent of Westview students.

Biglaryan cited that other government benefits are likely responsible for this discrepancy between those eligible students and those who participated in the program.

CalFresh and CalWORKs are two California aid programs that help low-income families get free or reduced meals, cash, and other services. The government doesn’t need to spend $650 million a year to feed students who are already well-fed.

Another key argument for the UMP is that the program helps destigmatize receiving free or reduced-priced meals, but—at least at Poway Unified schools—that does not apply due to the anonymity of our school lunch system, where a student inputs their school ID and then orders food, which is paid for by the money their parents put into their account or the free and reduced meals program. 

There is nothing indicating to other students in line who is receiving free lunch and who is not.

The UMP goes too far because it provides free meals to many who don’t need them. A program that specifically aids students from low-income families would decrease cost significantly. This could allow schools to be improved in more impactful ways.