California First State to Provide Free School Meals to All Students

Kamari Esquerra


As parents prepare to send their students back to school, one less thing they’ll have to worry about is paying for school meals. 

Beginning this year, California will be the first state to implement the Universal Meals program… providing free meals to all school children regardless of income.

“It feels absolutely outstanding. This is something that we pushed for for some time that is going to make life a lot easier for our parents and our students, as well as operationally here at Desert Sands,” said Daniel Cappello, Director of Nutrition at DSUSD.

DSUSD got a head start. Because of the need, the district was already offering free breakfast and lunch. 

“Many of our students, about 70%, were already free, 30% were not, and we were seeing a real spike in bad debt,” said Cappello. “Kids weren’t able to pay for whatever reason, those charges got charged off to the general fund so this is one way that having California take care of the bill for this, it’s going to help us balance our budget.”

Preparations are underway at the district kitchen in La Quinta.  

“We have about 160 employees in total all frantically getting ready for tomorrow,” said Cappello. 

“They’re packaging chicken nuggets for our elementary school that has potato wedges and chicken nuggets… They’re putting together an after school supper pack and this is applesauce, it’s going to have yogurt, a granola bar, and milk.”

Thousands of meals will be shipped out to students across the valley.

“Currently, we do about 22,000 meals a day, but with the additional suppers, it may be as high as 27,000 right now,” said Cappello. 

The district says health is top of mind. 

“That makes sure that we’re low on calories, low on saturated fats, it all has to be whole grain, lower sodium now,” said Cappello. “They’ll be some kind of plant based or vegetarian item everyday.” 

In a few weeks, the salad bars will reopen for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, filled with locally sourced fruits and veggies. The district says the best part is that the state and federally funded program promotes equity, eliminating stigmas in the lunch line.

“All kids are treated equally. There’s not going to be any concern for who’s free, who’s reduced or who pays,” said Cappello. “Every child at Desert Sands is entitled to a free breakfast and a free lunch with a lot less paperwork so we’re really excited about that.”

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