State says number of students approved to get free lunch is way up

Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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A change in the way California determines which students are eligible for meal programs means far more kids this year will receive free lunch at school.

There was a 32 percent increase in December to the number of California students automatically enrolled in the federally funded free and reduced meal program, California Department of Education officials announced. 

The increase is due to big changes the state made in July.

Rather than relying on paperwork, officials now match CalFresh data -- that’s the new name for food stamps – and other information about eligibility for poverty programs with public school student enrollment information to sign students up.

“We didn’t expand eligibility; this is just streamlining government so kids who are entitled to the service can actually access it,” said L.A.-area State Senator Holly Mitchell.

Mitchell is one of two state legislators who gathered education and social service administrators last year to find ways to improve.

Mitchell said school lunch eligibility was denied if addresses didn’t match, so officials found other ways to confirm a student’s address.

In L.A. County, the new methods led to more than 86,000 new students automatically enrolled.

Educators believe that automatically enrolling students who are eligible for free lunch programs is good for schools and good for students.

“So the moment that you are able to have children that have food and that they don’t worry about being hungry,” said Hacienda-La Puente Unified Superintendent Cynthia Parulan-Colfer, “then you have an opportunity to be able to help the focus in the classroom and that’s only going to be able to be beneficial in terms of increasing knowledge for our kids.”

The changes are part of a national trend to make it easier to make sure poor kids are getting school meals.