California and Maine Will Provide Free Meals to All Students in the Fall

An unseen small child, probably a student, holding a bright yellow school lunch tray with yellow milk carton, green beans, mixed fruit, a slice of pizza, a dessert which is not in focus, and a fork.

Lew Robertson/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • California and Maine will extend the free school lunch programs that started during the pandemic to provide free lunch to all students, regardless of their income status.
  • They are the first states to adopt a universal free lunch program.
  • Giving all students free lunch helps reduce some of the stigma attached to qualifying for the program and allows more children to benefit.

Two states—California and Maine—recently voted to provide all public school students free meals during the school day no matter a student's income level.

The decision, set to take effect in the upcoming fall term, is a permanent continuation of the emergency mandates put in place to ensure that children were fed in spite of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

California and Maine are the first states to adopt a universal free lunch program, which will level the playing field for students who do not receive daily meals or adequate nutrition at home and face undernourishment. Several U.S. cities like New York and Chicago currently have similar programs in place.

By extending these programs, the states have set a precedent for prioritizing childhood hunger and its effects on the development of school-aged kids. Ensuring that children are fed not only promotes their physical and psychological development but contributes to their success in the classroom as well.

“This is a huge support service to students, parents, and teachers after a really difficult year,” Venus Kalami, MNSP, RD, clinical dietitian for Stanford Children’s Health, tells Verywell. “California is a big state and this decision sets a precedent to hopefully inspire other states to do the same.”

Proper Nutrition Is Key

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent school closures brought the issue of food insecurity and hunger globally to the forefront. It's also led the country to a crossroads on how to confront the issue.

Extensive research shows that academic success is linked to a child’s basic needs—including shelter, clothing, food, and a safe and loving environment—being met.

For over 13 million children, the basic need for sufficient nutrition is not being met. These students are left hungry and unable to focus not only on their schoolwork but on all areas of their learning and development.

Children who are hungry may experience:

  • Lower academic achievement
  • Social and behavior issues
  • Mood and mental health conditions
  • Harms in cognitive development and brain growth
  • Chronic stress caused by meal uncertainty
  • Physical growth and development delays
  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Poor body image

Kalami highlights that national supplemental nutrition programs such as those for women, infants, and children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program encompass the "whole village" approach to caring for our children. They also both, stimulate the economy and help reduce instances of chronic illness in our youth.  

“Everyone gets something out of it," Kalami says. "These programs really pull their weight. The economy sees returns of three times what they put into it through the reduction in healthcare costs, and increased learning and school attendance.”

The Free Lunch Stigma

The National School Lunch Program uses federal and state funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help public and nonprofit schools nationwide offer both free and low-cost meals to at-risk students who qualify based on income, homeless, migrant, runaway, or foster youth status. 

To qualify for free meals, a family of four must make less than $34,000 a year and $48,000 to qualify for reduced-price meals. 

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 under President Harry Truman. In 2016, it provided meals to 30.4 million students.

While the program works to address the needs of vulnerable school-aged kids, stigma has also become attached to taking part in the program. Kids who get free or reduced lunch may face shame and isolation from peers, which may cause them to avoid the lunch line altogether.

The logistics of signing up for a free or reduced lunch program can also be challenging—especially if their parents or guardians do not speak English. 

“There is definitely a stigma surrounding the free lunch program,” Kalami says. “For students and parents that use English as a second language, offering free lunch for all can help reduce the barriers to getting their child signed up.”

Other obstacles that can keep eligible students from receiving free or reduced school lunch include:

  • Lack of awareness that there is a free lunch program
  • The need for Internet access to sign up
  • The need for literacy to get information and sign up
  • For immigrant families, the fear of disclosing undocumented status

When free lunch is provided to all students, instead of just some, it removes barriers to access, stigma, and the fear of being teased or singled out.

What This Means For You

Some states are starting or continuing free school lunch programs for the upcoming school year. Reach out to your local school district for information on how to register for free and reduced lunch programs where you live.

How You Can Help

If you're struggling with food insecurity, you can find a local food bank near you here. And if your state does not yet have free school lunch programs for all students, there are still ways that you can help make sure that kids in your community are fed.

Non-profit organization Feeding America, suggests helping by:

  • Volunteering your time and talents to a local food pantry or food bank
  • Making donations and fundraising
  • Joining the conversation (in-person and online)
  • Setting up food drives in your community
6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. What are the psychological effects of hunger on children?

  2. Feeding America. How hunger affects learning.

  3. ECMC Foundation. Basic Needs Initiative. Supporting the whole student by fulfilling basic needs.

  4. Feeding America. Food insecurity and poverty in the US.

  5. United States Department of Agriculture. The National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet.

  6. Feeding America. Advocating to end hunger.

By Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN
Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN, is a registered nurse with over six years of patient experience. She is a credentialed school nurse in California.