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California has become the first state to offer all children two free meals at school every day, regardless of their family's income.
The offer comes as part of a statewide Universal Meals Program and will include students from reception or kindergarten age through to 12th grade.
It applies to students in public school districts, county offices of education and charter schools, where they will be given breakfast and lunch each school day.
#SchoolMealsForAll signed! @CAgovernor @GavinNewsom’s education package provides $650M annually (starting SY 22-23) for all CA public school students to receive FREE breakfast and lunch! Additional $150M for freshly-prepared meals with staff training & school kitchen upgrades 🎉 pic.twitter.com/PKg7KahKrb— schoolmealsforall (@schoolmeals4all) July 12, 2021
The programme will begin in the 2022-2023 school year after Assembly Bill (AD) 130, which included the meal program, was signed into law in 2021 by Governor Gavin Newsom.
The Department of Education explains: "AB 130 establishes a California Universal Meals Program with changes to the state meal mandate and new requirements for high poverty schools to apply for a federal provision, such as the Community Eligibility Provision or Provision 2."
The department has also pointed out nutritious meals are key to helping students thrive.
Previously, students who qualified for free school meals were determined due to income caps which changed annually in line with federal poverty measures. Last year, the Associated Press (AP) reported that students in a family of four would only qualify for free meals if the family made less than $34,000 (£28,000) per year.
To qualify for a reduced-price meals, the family must have made less than $48,000 (£39,500).
Erin Primer, director of food and nutrition services for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, has praised the free school meals as 'historic' and 'beyond life-changing'.
Speaking to AP about the signing of the bill, she said: "We’ve completely levelled the playing field when it comes to school food."
After the bill was signed in California, officials in the state of Maine approved a similar program which also comes into effect this year.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the nonprofit organisation School Nutrition Association, said there has been 'a big push' for the introduction of free school meals as federal waivers which expanded children's access to food during the coronavirus pandemic reached their expiration.
Mary Emerson, a longtime school nutrition director, told the Press Herald she has had a 'lot of experience over the years walking into cafeterias and seeing kids not eating a meal'.
She recalled students saying their parents would be 'angry' if they ate a school lunch because they couldn't afford it, and has long felt that school meals should be free for all students.
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