(CNN Spanish) — California public school children will have access to free breakfast and lunch on school days regardless of their household’s financial situation. It is the first state in the United States to offer free meals to a total of six million students for the 2022-2023 school year, a historic effort to help many families facing rising costs of living.

The unprecedented measure against food insecurity is the Universal Meals Program (California Universal Meals), approved in July 2021 within the general law of the education budget.

Under this program, public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools serving students in grades preschool through 12 will provide two free meals regardless of their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals.

It is an initiative of different entities of the state and federal government and has funds from other national food programs. The state of California will also provide additional state meal reimbursement to cover the cost of the Universal Food Program.

“Universal Meals is a landmark investment in providing daily access to quality school breakfasts and lunches, regardless of income eligibility,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond told the School Meals for All coalition.

A plan against food insecurity

The state Department of Education worked during the past school year on updating kitchen infrastructure and training personnel related to nutrition in school districts, for which a single fund of US$150 million was available.

The plan also considers that schools with students within the high poverty line participate in a federal provision to access additional resources, according to school authorities. This would especially benefit students certified as temporarily adopted, homeless, migrant, minors who have run away from home or who participate in the program called Head Start.

The Universal Meal Program begins at a critical time for many families in the United States due to rising food prices, inflation and the number of children facing hunger, according to the study “The impact of coronavirus in food security in 2020 and 2021” of the organization Feeding Americait is estimated that 13 million children, or 1 in 6, had experienced food insecurity in 2021 in the country.

The situation in California: Latinos are among the most affected

The state government says it is the first in the nation to make free meals permanent for all public school students, regardless of family income.

20% percent of Californians face food insecurity on a daily basis, according to January 2022 data from the California Association of Food Banksand Black, Latino, and multiracial Californians experience much higher levels of hunger.

Nearly 60% of California’s 6.2 million students qualified to receive free or reduced-price meals in the 2019-2020 school year, according to School Meals for All, a coalition made up of more than 200 organizations that has lobbied for funding in the state budget.

In the past two years, the financial fallout from the pandemic has pushed child hunger to record levels, even in America’s wealthiest counties.

Universal free lunch programs ensure no one is left behind and remove the stigma associated with qualifying for free and reduced-price meals based on family income, the School Meals for All coalition said.

With information from Stella Chan, Theresa Waldrop and Sebastián Jiménez

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