Opinion: We Need to Keep Free School Meals

Photo by XiXinXing/iStock

When California passed the landmark School Meals for All legislation in 2021, we became the first state in the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch for all K-12 students regardless of income. Since then, 26 states have introduced similar legislation in response to the end of federal pandemic emergency food assistance, rising inflation, and what has been called a “hunger cliff” for many kids. As school lunch debt is soaring across the nation, California has become a model for ensuring schools can provide nutritious breakfast and lunch for all students without accruing district debt and stigmatizing students whose families can’t afford to pay.

After the legislation passed, school districts throughout the state, including the Upland Unified School District, where I am the nutrition director, took stock of what we could do with the resources we had to feed all kids who wanted free breakfast and lunch every day. My district received a California Department of Food and Agriculture Farm-to-School grant to build a garden at every school and to develop more relationships with local farmers and bakeries to source locally grown and produced ingredients and foods. 

With the help of the grant, we created new menus built around healthy, nutritious, fresh items and offered our students salad bars and seasonal fruit. We came up with appealing and fun options like make-your-own yogurt parfaits with fresh berries and tostadas. At the high school level, we serve plant-based Fiesta Bowls and have introduced kids to locally sourced edible flowers, microgreens, and watermelon radishes. After all, we live on the most fertile land in the nation and kids should have the opportunity to try and enjoy new ingredients. 

Growing up in Russia, I spent summers at my aunt’s farm and vividly recall the joy of biting into a perfectly ripe piece of fruit and eating meals prepared with love and care from ingredients in the garden. I wanted to share that experience and love of quality, wholesome, and delicious food with our kids. A sun-ripened fruit grown with love by a local family-owned farm is bursting with flavor. 

There’s a misconception that kids don’t like unfamiliar foods, but I know otherwise. Assuming that young people won’t try something new that happens to be good for them robs them of the opportunity to decide for themselves. Students in Upland Unified School District not only get to grow and taste their own food in our school gardens, they also get to taste new fruits and veggies through a Harvest of the Month program. 

While basic sustenance is critical, showing children they are special and loved is just as important to their development. When I hire school nutrition staff, I look for individuals who share my passion and mission: people who go above and beyond to serve, nourish and cherish our students. Food is love, and we need to continue to prioritize serving healthy school food. Kids can’t learn if they are undernourished or are anxious about not knowing where their next meal is coming from. 

By feeding our kids well, helping them develop a healthy and curious relationship with food from local farms, and ensuring that no child goes hungry, we give this generation a great start at a healthy, productive future. 

Ksenia Glenn is nutrition director at the Upland Unified School District. 

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