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Calif. Becomes First State to Offer Free School Meals to All Children: 'This Benefits Everyone'


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California has become the first state in the nation to offer free school meals.

Called Universal Meals, the program builds on the foundations of the federal National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, according to the California Board of Education.

More than 5.8 million students — the state's public school enrollment count in April, per Cal Matters — will benefit from the policy.

Merced Union High School District has already started giving free breakfasts and lunches to students because of the program, which launches across the state this school year, ABC News reported.

The program is part of state Assembly Bill 130, landmark legislation that focuses on education finance. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last year, according to The Sacramento Bee.

"We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you're hungry you cannot learn well," state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who helped to spearhead the program, told EdSource last year.

The new initiative — funded by both the state and federal government — comes at a time when inflation and food costs have increasingly affected families throughout the country. It's also being lauded for helping to take away the stigma of getting a free lunch.

About 1 in 6 six children in the U.S. experienced food security in 2021, according to Feeding America.

RELATED: Calif. Ends School Lunch-Shaming by Guaranteeing All Students Will Get a Meal

"When a student would come through a lunch line and they were considered to be a free student, it would create definitely a barrier with getting meals during the day," Erin Tassey, director of nutritional services for Merced Union High School District, told KABC.

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One student told the news station, "I remember when I was in elementary school I had to pay for lunch and I really didn't like that. It's nice to know that this benefits everyone overall."

"We commend Governor Newsom for recognizing the importance of universal school meals and continuing to provide the crucial ongoing funding to combat food insecurity so our kids can learn and thrive in the classroom," No Kid Hungry California Director Kathy Saile said in a statement in May.

Maine is expected to follow California's lead, as ABC News reported Gov. Janet Mills signed similar legislation last year.