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Marni Shelton serves meals to students in the San Marcos Unified School District last year. The district will offer two free meals a day to all students beginning this year under new state funding. Photo courtesy of San Marcos USD
Marni Shelton serves meals to students in the San Marcos Unified School District last year. The district will offer two free meals a day to all students beginning this year under new state funding. Photo courtesy of San Marcos USD
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North County schools launch universal free meal program this fall

REGION — All students in North San Diego County’s public and charter schools will have guaranteed access to two free meals each day beginning this fall, even as federal funding for universal free meals during the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end.

California became the first state to budget funds for universal free meals for all K-12 students last year, setting aside $650 million in ongoing funds for the effort and creating a safeguard for the state’s children once federal funds were exhausted.

For Naomi Shadwell, executive director of child nutrition services in the San Marcos Unified School District, the state’s program has eliminated the uncertainty inherent to the federal program around how long students could access free meals.

“We had already made some adjustments because universal free meals had been in place for two years [during COVID-19], but this allowed us to look long term and set our goals based on future plans and that solid funding,” Shadwell said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only students meeting specific income eligibility requirements could qualify for free or reduced meals. However, districts saw the number of students utilizing free meals increase exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic once these requirements were lifted.

San Marcos Unified, which kicked off the school year on Aug. 16, is offering around 15,000 meals per day this year — 30% more than pre-COVID.

Marni Shelton was recognized as the 2021-22 Child Nutrition Services Employee of the Year in the San Marcos Unified School District. The district will offer two free meals a day to all students beginning this year and into the future under new state funding. Photo courtesy of San Marcos Unified School District
Marni Shelton was recognized as the 2021-22 Child Nutrition Services Employee of the Year in the San Marcos Unified School District. The district will offer all students two free meals a day beginning this year and into the future under new state funding. Photo courtesy of San Marcos Unified School District

During the pandemic, Shadwell said the number of students accessing free breakfasts and lunches nearly doubled in the district’s high schools.

This year, meals will include produce from the district’s new provider Dassi Farms and foods that high school students indicated they would like to see on the menu, such as ramen and customizable burritos.

“We’re really looking at what industry is doing and reflecting that, and of course making it nourishing and healthy to meet the regulations, but also doing what we can to entice students to give them a voice,” Shadwell said.

San Marcos Unified and other school districts have been notifying families about the new program in preparation for the return to school in mid-August. In many districts, nutrition is considered a crucial part of education rather than a separate element.

“School meals are critical to our student’s health and academic success. We are grateful that feeding students has been prioritized in the California Universal Meals legislation and hope that students take advantage of the free meals being offered,” said Marley Nelms, Director of Food Services in the San Dieguito Union High School District.

Under the new state program, K-12 students are not required to sign up or register to receive school-provided meals. However, schools are encouraging families to fill out free and reduced-price meal applications to determine if they are eligible for additional benefits such as utility discounts and academic testing fee waivers.

District officials also say that the more families who complete applications — particularly those eligible for the free and reduced-price meal program — the more funding districts are likely to receive from the state and federal government.

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