Pro/Con: Free school lunch

Think of any high school movie; most likely, it has a clichéd lunch scene in a cafeteria, where the tables and seating reflect the social hierarchy on campus. While these fictitious lunchtimes may reflect high school cliques with some accuracy, they got one thing wrong: all students on the big screen had equal access to cafeteria meals.

Only in the 2022-23 school year were free school lunches available to all students in California. Though free and reduced prices were previously available to low-income families, those programs often required applications and came with stigmas for students who used them.

In 2022 California instituted Universal Meals, a state-funded mandate that provides free lunch to all public school students regardless of income status. California has begun to move in the right direction, leveling the field.

Before California became the first state to institute the program, meal programs targeting food-insecure students helped those who did not have access to consistent good nutrition. The success of the program is reflected in students’ academic performance.

According to the School Nutrition Association, “students who eat school breakfast have been shown to achieve 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5% more classes.”

A 2019 National Geographic story said about 20% of total calorie intake goes toward brain function, making good nutrition crucial.

California made the right decision in expanding the program to all students, as these nutritional and educational benefits affect all. Amid current pushes to return to the California system that served only low-income students, it’s important to understand the benefits of a universal program.

The promise of a free meal on campus is a comfort to many, regardless of their family income — not having to worry about your classmates hearing your hunger pains makes a difference.

However, some argue that having free school lunches uses funding that could be used to benefit a higher-need group. Specifically, the Republican Study Committee is focused on eliminating free school lunches in the 2024 federal budget.

According to the Washington Post, “Republican governors in 15 states are already rejecting a federally funded program to give food assistance to hungry children during the summer.”

By doing this, a barrier is created between students and academic success as well as physical and emotional health.

Singling out one group would counteract much of the good these lunches could do and instead amplify the isolation in-need students feel.

By supplying school lunches to everyone, California ensures a more level playing field and cultivates school-wide access. And, you can live out your “High School Musical’’ lunch-scene fantasy, with a full plate of food in front of every student, and hopefully no singing and dancing.

In the 2022-23 school year, California implemented a statewide Universal Meals Program, which required K-12 public schools to offer two free meals (breakfast and lunch) to all students each school day, regardless of family income.

While the program succeeded in serving 2 million more meals in its initial year compared to the 2018- 19 school year, according to the California Department of Education, its implementation continues to be accompanied by undesired outcomes that necessitate a review of its utility.

By expanding the qualifier group for free meals from low-income students to all students, California dilutes the focus on food-insecure students and exacerbates food waste.

According to a 2019 World Wildlife Fund, 530,000 tons of food and 45 million gallons of milk are wasted per year in U.S. school cafeterias. With significantly more public school students now accessing school meals with the UMP, food waste only increases. At TPHS, untouched food sits piled in the trash after the lunch period; some students even throw away parts of their school lunches immediately after they receive them.

Food waste has always been a problem, but if free lunches are just being thrown away, it undermines the point of the program, throwing resources beneficial to food-insecure students literally in the garbage.

Just because free lunch is provided does not mean everyone is easily able to access it. Because more students are participating in the program, it takes more time for each individual to get a meal. According to a 2023 EdWeek Research Center survey, 21% of teachers said their students had less than 20 minutes to eat their meals. At TPHS, the Falcon Eatery often has long lines winding from its doors during lunch, to the point where students run out of their class when the bell rings just to get their meals.

Many cafeterias face issues similar to those of the Falcon Eatery and are unable to meet the demand for free meals, even as those meals end up in the trash minutes later. According to the School Pulse Panel, a study on the impact of the pandemic on public schools, 53% of U.S. public schools in August 2022 felt they were understaffed entering the 2022-23 school year.

These problems — food waste and overburdened cafeterias — are not necessarily evidence that schools should go back to charging students for their meals, which is the current push by some California Republicans. Those politicians have adopted the cafeteria as a backdrop for their campaigns, pushing to end universal free meals in 2024.

While students should not have to worry about where they’ll get their next meals, the Universal Meals Program is currently inefficient and makes it difficult to deliver meals to students who truly need them. With suitable regulation and waste management, such as student inclusion in menu development and meal distribution through multiple distribution points specifically at TPHS, such a universal program could fulfill its original intention.

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