Opinion: Much-needed free school meals program must be preserved by state government

Originally posted by The San Diego Union Tribune

 Robert Fellmeth

April 15, 2024 6:38 PM PT

Robert Fellmeth is the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute and Price Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego and lives in San Diego.

We don’t get a second chance to raise a child. Ask any doctor and they will tell you that if a growing child is deprived of nutritious food for too long, this deprivation will follow them into adulthood, permanently harming their mental and physical well-being.

With this understanding, California enacted the visionary School Meals for All program in 2021, to ensure that every student regardless of income can eat a nutritious lunch and breakfast each day at school. By any measure, it has been a huge success. New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that California students’ participation in school meals outperforms national trends.

However, with the state facing a budget deficit of $73 billion, some in Sacramento are suggesting imposing bureaucratic financial screening requirements on parents to try to save money by limiting school meals only to the so-called “neediest” children.

Superficially, this might seem like a reasonable way to prioritize the program so it benefits those children who need it most. In the real world, however, not only will such paperwork not work, but it will also cruelly backfire. Imposing bureaucratic paperwork requirements on parents as a prerequisite for their children qualifying for school meals will inevitably result in our most vulnerable children, including those without homes, those from families whose parents are battling addiction and children of families who lack permanent legal status, going hungry.

Here’s why it will backfire. Our poorest families whose children most need a nutritious breakfast and lunch every day are living on the streets, in shelters, or in cars. They don’t have printers to print out forms. They don’t have computers to fill out PDFs and send them online. They don’t have stamps for mailing. They can’t get across town to talk to a government employee to plead their case. They may not speak or read English.

And our most precarious children — children of parents struggling not just with poverty but also with addiction or mental illness — are powerless to insist their parents fill out and submit forms.

Consider, too, that families who lack permanent legal statuswill not risk submitting more government forms that could be used by federal immigration officers. Indeed, health care advocates know that it is too common for such families to delay even critical emergency room care because they fear the consequences. This is particularly true in the San Diego area, where approximately 21.5 percent of the county’s population are immigrants, including refugees, and one in four people are experiencing hunger, according to estimates from the San Diego Hunger Coalition.

But that’s not all. Using income cut-offs will also exclude many children whose parents live just about the federal income threshold but who still urgently need food. For instance, despite San Diego being ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in, families of four do not qualify for free school meals from the federal program if their total income is over $39,000. Earning just one minimum wage full-time annual income in California would almost be enough to disqualify the children of such a family from free school meals.

The hard truth lawmakers in Sacramento need to hear is this: There is simply no way to impose bureaucratic school meal paperwork requirements on parents that verify their income that won’t also result in denying the absolute neediest, the absolute hungriest children the food they need when they need it the most — when they are growing up.

No child is directly or indirectly responsible for our budget deficit. They don’t have tax havens offshore. They don’t hire special interest lobbyists to get tax breaks or lower fees. They don’t vote in California elections. In any family, if there was a shortage of food, adults would sacrifice and the children would eat first. The same should be true of decisions in Sacramento.