A Lawmaker’s Crusade to Require Public Charter Schools to Provide Free Lunch

Statewide, charter schools enroll over 630,000 students, and close to 60 percent of them would qualify for free and reduced-price meals, based on family income. Photo: Thinkstock

Some of Assemblyman Rob Bonta’s colleagues were puzzled when he introduced a bill about school lunches in late January.

“Isn’t that a law already?” other lawmakers asked Bonta (D-Oakland) about AB 1871, which would guarantee at least one free or reduced-price meal for low-income charter school students each school day.

In fact, it’s not.

While Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in 1975, during his first term in office, requiring public schools to serve free and reduced-cost meals each school day, charter schools are not included in the law.

Bonta wants to remedy that.

“Hungry students cannot learn effectively,” he said. “School nutrition programs are a critical resource for all students in need, regardless of which public school they attend.”

There are now over 1,200 charter schools in California—the most in the country. Statewide, charter schools enroll over 630,000 students, and close to 60 percent of them would qualify for free and reduced-price meals, based on family income, according to the California Charter School Association, which represents the schools.

Not providing these students with lunch at school “exacerbates the achievement gap for low-income students, including students of color,” Bonta said.

All charter schools are eligible for federal funding that reimburses schools for money spent on meals. Despite this, more than 81,000 low-income students in the state attend charter schools that do not offer free and reduced-price school meals, said Tia Shamada, director of programs at California Food Policy Advocates, which supports the new bill. Some charter schools don’t offer any meal program at all, paid or unpaid, according to the Oakland-based advocacy group.

The Charter Association is supportive of the bill, said spokesman Richard Garcia.

“We agree with the spirit and goal of the legislation and will continue to work with the legislature and our schools to increase access to facilities that allow for expanded opportunities for students,” he said.

The association is discussing aspects of the bill with Bonta, including how it would work for charter schools that are already faced with facility or spacing issues, Garcia said.

Many charter schools lack the facilities to prepare and store food, the association said. But, according to California Food Policy Advocates, so do many public schools, which opt to contract with vendors to provide food daily.

In California, students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals based on household income and family size, per California Department of Education requirements. To qualify for free meals, for example, a family of four must earn $31,980 or less annually. The income threshold is higher for reduce-price meals, at $45,510 annually for a family of four.

Without free and reduced-price meals children from low-income homes at charter schools often don’t eat during the school day, according to research by Food Policy Advocates.

At the Oakland charter school that Auroya Muhammad’s son and granddaughter attend, there is no official free or reduced-price lunch program.

Students at the elementary and middle school, East Oakland Leadership Academy, can access refrigerators to store food brought from home, and the administration buys and offers lunch food such as burritos to children who don’t bring food from home. Some parents send extra food for children who may not have food at home to bring with them, said Muhammad, who is president of the school’s parent association.

Muhammed, and her daughter, Patrice Muhammed, who is vice president of the parent association, said the school has been trying to find out how to provide free and reduced-price lunches. Although the school chose not to renew its charter and plans to close after this school year, it will continue inquiring about free and reduced-price meals for the remainder of the 2018 term, Patrice Muhammed said.

The two mothers estimate that they spend about $25 per week on lunches and snacks for both children. Based on their incomes—both work for the state government—they might qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The reduced-price lunch would cost them a total of eighty cents per day instead of the $5 they are spending now, which could save the two single-parent households thousands of dollars each year.

Patrice Muhammad said that while the cost of food is a key factor, it’s not the only reason parents at the charter school would like to see a federally supported lunch program at the school. In many households, particularly if parents work full-time, having lunch provided by school is a huge time saver, she said.

Weekly food costs at the charter school her children attended, Bella Mente Montessori Academy Vista, is one reason Erica Gallardo of San Marcos moved her two youngest children to a different public school two years ago. Her two older children were already in a traditional public high school.

A single parent of four kids, it was sometimes tough to afford lunch costs for the charter school on top of everything else, she said. The school didn’t offer free or reduced-cost lunches but had a menu of items often including one free item for low-income families that parents could order and prepay in advance, charged to a credit card.

“The free item was usually a bean burrito which my kids wouldn’t eat,” said Gallardo, a freelance notary public. Costs for other lunch menu items could run $6 or more for sushi, a salad or hand wraps, she said.

Her kids more commonly ate less expensive pizza and a drink, but she still found food costs running about $100 a month and supplemented with brown bag lunches from home. Now, those two children and a high school senior brother are at a local public school where the family qualifies for free breakfast and lunch.

“The savings in school meal costs makes a huge difference to us,” Gallardo said.

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