For San Luis Obispo's students, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
San Luis Coastal Unified School District began the 2021-22 school year with free and healthy breakfast and lunch for the 15 public schools under its care. Free school food could improve SLO's in-person student attendance rates, said district Food and Nutrition Services Director Erin Primer.
- PHOTO BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL
- LUNCH GONE SLOCAL Hawthorne Elementary is one of the 15 schools in SLO that enjoys free breakfast and lunch made with local ingredients.
"Anecdotally, we tend to see that the kids who are eating their meals at school have better attendance. They're healthier and they're not missing as much school because they're out sick," she said.
This is the first time a free meal program for students covered so many schools in SLO. Can the plan be an incentive for parents to send their children to school in a post-pandemic environment?
"Of course," Primer said.
Backed by the United States Department of Agriculture, the school district gets reimbursed for every meal spread. Primer mentioned that meal reimbursement is now at an all-time high of $4.50.
"When you think about it, $4.50 for a lunch, there's not too many places you can go to get a healthy, balanced, locally sourced meal," she said.
Primer and her culinary team spend anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 a week to feed the whole school district. This is where SLO's agriculture and livestock industries step in to help. The school district mitigates costs because it can source high-quality ingredients locally, as opposed to other regions that might have to spend more to bring in out-of-state produce.
"We're very lucky there's such an abundance here in our county. So we're able to source a lot from our community. We want kids to know the story of their food and how it got to their plate," Primer said.
The Seamless Summer Option—a federally and state-funded program meant to provide school meals in lower-income areas during the summer—now covers the whole school year, giving San Luis Coastal the ability to offer the free meal scheme at a time when local children experienced hunger at a higher rate than adults. Primer said that SLO Food Bank data from 2020 showed an increase in food insecurity during the height of the pandemic. Now, she hopes that healthy school food will make a positive impact.
Primer told New Times that the free and reduced meals program went through a significant update: It waived the income requirement as a qualifier. This levels the playing field, she said, because it eliminates the stigma associated with school lunches.
"We have good food, and everybody wants to eat it. That's so important in fighting hunger, because you've got kids who really need this program who now feel really good about participating in it. Their friends who maybe don't have the same need—they've got the solid food sources at home—they wanna eat the same food at school," Primer said.
According to her department's statistics, student participation in the meal plan jumped 56 percent on Aug. 19 (the first day of school this year) from the same date in 2019. Pre-pandemic, Primer's office only catered to one-fourth of the school district. But from March 2020 to June 2021, they served 1.5 million meals to a district with more than 7,500 students.
Emma Walzer, who has a second grader at Hawthorne Elementary, lets her daughter choose between school and homemade food.
"It would save me so much time in the morning if she picked the school lunch, probably an hour. She'll be having tamales on Wednesday from the school menu," Walzer said with a laugh.
Angela Lynch often packs lunches for her picky second-grader, Michael.
"It's awesome knowing that every day there's something different and there are many options, too. He [Michael] has opted for school lunches sometimes, like on hot dog day or breakfast for lunch day," she said.
She noticed that SLO's school lunches had been getting better ever since her now high school aged daughter was in elementary.
"My daughter turned vegetarian about a year ago, so they have stuff for her too," Lynch said.
SLO's free meal plan comes hot on the heels of California Gov. Gavin Newsom passing a universal meal bill. Primer said that it would be a line item in the state budget for the next two years. This means that all Californian students will get free school meals until 2023 at least. Δ