California Universal Meals Program

Education code requires providing two free meals in TK-12

Sacramento, Calif.- Beginning in School Year (SY) 2022–23, California will become the first state to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program for school children.

California’s Universal Meals Program (Universal Meals) is designed to build on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).

There are three key pillars that have been established to ensure that the program is a success:

  • Pillar One: California’s State Meal Mandate is expanded to include both a nutritiously adequate breakfast and lunch for, not just needy children, but all children each school day.
  • Pillar Two: High poverty schools will be required to participate in a federal provision.
  • Pillar Three: The California State Legislature allocates funds to provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Meals Program.

Update of State Meal Mandate

Commencing in SY 2022–23, Education Code (EC) 49501.5 requires public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools serving students in grades TK–12 to provide two meals free of charge (breakfast and lunch) during each school day to students requesting a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility.

Federal Provision Participation Requirement

On or before June 30, 2022, EC 49564.3 requires local educational agencies (LEAs) with high poverty schools to adopt a federal universal meal service provision, such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or Provision 2. A school is considered high poverty if their identified student percentage (ISP) is over 40 percent, meaning 40 percent of enrolled students are determined eligible for free or reduced-price school meals through direct certification, or identification as homeless, migrant, foster, or runaway.

Supplemental State Meal Reimbursement

The CDE will reimburse LEAs for all nonreimbursed expenses accrued in providing federally reimbursable meals to students, as long as the LEA participates in the federal School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs and serves U.S Department of Agriculture reimbursable meals. LEAs will still be required to abide by federal regulations and guidelines as Universal Meals is meant to supplement, not replace, the federal school nutrition programs.

Under EC 49501.5, the meal reimbursement amount will not exceed the difference between the federal and state free reimbursement rates. Additional state reimbursements will be provided for reduced-price and paid meals to ensure LEAs receive the same reimbursement for those meal categories as they would for meals served at the free reimbursement rate.

student getting lunch

“This is a transformational moment in California’s march toward a hunger-free future for our children. We are grateful for the exceptional leadership by Governor Newsom and Senator Skinner, and are proud to stand alongside them and a broad multi-sector coalition as California leads the nation. Hungry children cannot learn, and must be provided the nutrition they need to fuel their learning, grow into healthy adults, and fulfill their potential,” said Andrew Cheyne, Director of Government Affairs for the California Association of Food Banks. “Now, we call on our federal legislators, President Biden, and Vice President Harris to enact healthy school meals for all children across the county – to truly invest in the future of our kids and our nation.”

Healthiest source of meals for American children

School meals are the healthiest source of meals for American children, according to a study from Tufts University, and a body of evidence shows students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved attendance, behavior, and academic achievement as well as decreased tardiness.

What People Are Saying

“The American Heart Association commends the Governor and legislature for leading the nation with their commitment to provide funding for universal school meals. We have seen the negative impact that poor nutrition during childhood and adolescence can have on the body. Nutritious school meals establish a foundation for a lifetime of healthy behaviors, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and support cognitive development and academic success. Funding universal school meals sends a clear message that California puts the health and wellbeing of its children first.”
Jamie Morgan, Government Relations Regional Lead, American Heart Association

“Investment in school nutrition is an investment in the future of agriculture. California produces the healthiest, freshest and highest quality products in the world. Our school-aged children should be the beneficiaries of that California-grown bounty.”
Taylor Roschen, Policy Advocate, California Farm Bureau Federation

“California moving forward School Meals For All is a massive win for nutrition security and health equity. This critical step will set the stage for a national shift towards expanding real food access.”
Nora LaTorre, CEO, Eat REAL

“The decision to provide free school meals for all K-12 students in California is a clear indicator of the state’s dedication to ending child hunger. Common Sense is proud to be aligned with this effort to support the wellbeing and development of young people.”
Marvin J. Deon II, Vice President – CA Policy, Common Sense

“We are thrilled to see California lead the way in recognizing the essential role of school meals as we emerge from the pandemic. Free, healthy school meals for all kids support families, farmers, and school nutrition professionals who work every day to make sure kids get the food they need to thrive.”
Curt Ellis, Co-Founder and CEO, FoodCorps

“I have students who show up Monday morning for school breakfast and tell me that they didn’t eat over the weekend because it wasn’t their turn. It’s heartbreaking. I applaud California’s decision to fund School Meals for All, which will reduce child hunger, eliminate stigma, and ensure that every student is prepared to learn.”
Stephanie Bruce, Nutrition Services Director, Palm Springs Unified School District

“School Meals for All is about more than free breakfast and lunch. California is telling students we see you, we prioritize you, and you deserve all the tools you need to thrive at school.”
Mark Chavez, Director of Nutrition Services, Long Beach Unified School District

“I have seen how stigma can keep students from eating school meals, even when the alternative is going hungry. School Meals for All will not only eliminate school meal debt, it will provide much-needed relief to struggling families experiencing daily stress and stigma around feeding their kids. California’s leadership to feed every hungry child should be a model for the rest of our nation.”
Trieste Huey, Food Service Director, Fontana Unified School District

“Oakland Unified’s success serving free school meals provides proof of the benefits that will now be available to all California students: reliable nutrition, free of stigma, and the ability to focus on their education. This is a win for our schools, families, and students.”
Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Superintendent, Oakland Unified School District

“During a typical school year, families earning minimum wage in San Francisco don’t qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. The federal guidelines don’t account for California’s high cost of living. As a school nutrition director of 20 years, I am thrilled to see California lead the way on universal meals, and look forward to the positive impact free school meals for all will have on our students.”
Jennifer LeBarre, Executive Director, Student Nutrition Services, San Francisco Unified School District

“School Meals For All represents a major victory for California families. Now, every child will have access to food at school-an essential learning tool. This funding will alleviate burdens on families, especially the single parents and spouses of enlisted service members San Diego Unified serves.”
Gary Petill, Nutrition Services Director, San Diego Unified School District

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