“All five children get lunch at school,” mother Maria Chavez said through a Spanish interpreter. School lunches help the Chavez’, whose names have been changed, make ends meet.
Arturo Chavez, 7, is my clinic patient in South Los Angeles. He has developmental issues, notably a speech delay. But with help from medication and therapy, he is catching up to his first-grade peers. He is an engaging little boy who loves to tell stories, even with his speech difficulties.
Arturo has four siblings, ages 4 to 17, and all are in school. Maria Chavez, their mother, is unable to work, in part because of Arturo’s frequent appointments. The children’s father’s monthly income as a restaurant cook is less than $4,000.
“At the end of the month, it’s difficult,” Maria Chavez said. “So we go to food banks or our church for food.”
Arturo and his family have food insecurity—the U.S. government’s euphemistic term for people who don’t have enough food to lead normal, healthy lives. The Chavez’ are not unique, about 21 percent of children in California and nationwide live in poverty. In our state, 1.9 million children do not have enough to eat.
Recognizing that too many kids go hungry, the California legislature passed The Feed the Kids Act, Senate bill 138, which went into effect on Jan. 1. This program will provide school meals to some of the state’s poorest kids.
Nearly all of my clinic patients in South Los Angeles live at or below the poverty level. Most have working parents with low-paying jobs. They struggle to have a place to live and put food on the table.
Every day, I see the effects of hunger and poverty on the kids’ physical and mental well-being. Hunger contributes to poor school performance, developmental delays, anxiety, behavior problems and even chronic illnesses, such as asthma. Obesity is an ironic partner of hunger, often resulting from consuming cheap food with empty calories.
The government has safety-net programs to address food insecurity, accounting for $135.7 billion (3.5 percent) of the federal budget. Most programs are operated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The programs include the National School Lunch Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (which is for pregnant women and children younger than 5), among others. CalFresh is California’s SNAP program.
Previously, California law required that schools, with any grades K through 12, provide one free or reduced-price meal each school day to eligible children. Students who are (or have siblings who are) recipients of CalFresh or CalWORKs (an assistance program for low-income families) are automatically eligible for free meals. So are students who are homeless, foster children, migrants or runaways. Data matching with county or state welfare records identified many of these students.
However, nearly 60 percent of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunch had to go through an application process. Hurdles for completing the application prohibited some families from participating. About one-third of eligible kids aren't enrolled.
Under the new law, this application step was eliminated.
Using Medi-Cal Direct Certification, children who are enrolled in Medi-Cal will be automatically eligible for the school food programs. Medi-Cal is California’s Medicaid program, the health insurance for low-income children and adults. For example, the maximum annual income to be eligible is $48,850 for a family of seven, like the Chavez Family.
The new law also requires that very high poverty schools provide breakfast and lunch free of charge for all pupils through the federal universal meal service. Very high-poverty schools are defined as those having 75 percent or more pupils eligible for the federal lunch program. Almost 95 percent of pupils enrolled in very high-poverty level schools are Hispanic/Latino or African American.
“With SB 138, we could see about 2,000 hunger-free schools,” said Elyse Vitale, senior advocate of California Food Policy Advocates.
“Food is not a privilege,” she added.
The California Department of Education reported that the program will increase access to food for more than 500,000 school-age kids.
School food programs have proven benefits for academics and health. Children who eat at school have less hunger, better attendance and improved educational outcomes, such as higher levels of literacy and math proficiency. Pew Charitable Trust reported that the availability of healthy food at school improves children’s eating habits and reduces their risks for obesity and type-2 diabetes.
“Lunch makes it easier [financially] for us,” Chavez said, adding that her children especially appreciate the milk and fruit they get at school. “I’m happy that we qualified.”
ChrisAnna Mink is a pediatrician who practices in South Los Angeles.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on the California Health Report website on Jan. 5, 2018