California Set to Approve $80M for School Meals

California’s lawmakers are poised to approve an additional $80 million for school meals at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic, a heatwave, power outages and fires are forcing disruptions to education and daily life. The Center for Ecoliteracy and the Office of Kat Taylor commend California’s legislators for responding to their constituents and moving swiftly to support essential school meals for millions of California students.

“Many California school meal programs ended the school year millions of dollars in the red, so the additional $80 million is a much-needed lifeline,” said Kat Taylor, Founder of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation. “Providing reliable, healthy school meals to under-resourced families is so critical, especially at a time when we are struggling to cope with one crisis after another.”

SB 820 in the Education Omnibus Trailer Bill will appropriate an additional $80 million in reimbursements for school meals served from March to August 2020. The Center for Ecoliteracy, whose California Food for California Kids® initiative supports a growing network of public school districts across the state that collectively serve over 330 million meals a year, and the Office of Kat Taylor have long urged lawmakers to approve additional funding after it became clear the $112 million approved in June was crucial, but not nearly enough.

Increased costs associated with safely providing school meals during distance learning as well as a lack of flexibility from the federal government to continue serving free meals and snacks to all children under 18 years old have put enormous strain on school districts. As a result, school food program budgets have been decimated and School Nutrition Services Directors are sounding the alarm that they are running major deficits.

The Center for Ecoliteracy conducted a survey with public school districts to learn about school food budget deficits at the start of the 2020–21 school year. The survey with 39 school districts that collectively represent over 800,000 students revealed that:

  • COVID-19 has resulted in budget deficits for 92% of the responding school nutrition departments.
  • The average deficit for each of the responding school districts was $1.36 million, or $56 per student.
  • If this pattern holds true in other school districts across the state, initial estimates suggest that California’s school food programs could be facing as much as $325 million of debt for just the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Initial estimates are based on survey responses from 19 school districts that serve 7% of California’s public school students.)
  • California’s $0.75 per meal allocation for March through mid-May will help, but is not enough. It will only cover current deficits at 4% of responding districts.
  • Some district leaders warned that without additional funding, there would be layoffs next year for the school nutrition employees — including those who put their lives on the line throughout the entire COVID-19 crisis.

The additional funding comes at a time when the USDA has denied consistent and repeated requests from state and federal lawmakers to grant school districts the flexibility to feed all children under 18 years old via waivers. Alongside many other advocates, a bipartisan group of 45 California legislators urged the USDA to issue these waivers earlier this month. In an August 20 letter sent to federal lawmakers, Secretary Sonny Perdue responded by punting to Congress, and dismissing the opportunity to extend these waivers.

“While we want to provide as much flexibility as local school districts need during this pandemic, the scope of this request is beyond what USDA currently has the authority to implement and would be closer to a universal school meals program which Congress has not authorized or funded,” said the letter.

Impact Investor, Co-Founder and Board Chair of Beneficial State Bank and Co-Founder of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation