VACAVILLE, Calif. -- When millions of California children go back to school this month, they won't just encounter pandemic safety measures, they will also be getting a free lunch every day.
Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom approved using funds from the unexpected budget surplus to pay for the largest free school meals program in the country, covering an estimated 6.2 million children.
"School meals for all was considered an impossible dream until the pandemic came along," said Kat Taylor, founder of TomKat Ranch and a driving force behind the idea.
When the pandemic started, families lined up in cars to pick up food bags or prepared meals. It soon became clear that schools were becoming vital centers of food distribution for students and their families.
"One silver lining of COVID has been that people are starting to see schools as the true heroes and that they are starting to see that schools are the largest restaurants in town," said Nora LaTorre, the CEO of Eat Real.
The nonprofit teaches school districts how to source food locally and use their bulk buying power to get access to higher-quality ingredients.
"They have a lot of buying power. It is possible to make these changes at scale and offer more sustainable food," said LaTorre.
The Vacaville Unified School District began making the changes a few years ago and last school year opened a new industrial-type kitchen at one of their elementary schools.
The district even hired a chef to make meals from scratch, which in some cases are less expensive than if they had bought more heavily processed food.
"Having roasted vegetables, different textures and flavors. The kids don't know what they have been missing," said Richie Wilim, culinary manager.
Right now, the staff is making meals for as many as 1,000 children, many of which are delivered to other schools that don't yet have a kitchen.
"These kitchens exist in restaurants, in hospitals, in stadiums, in prisons, why shouldn't they exist in schools," said Juan Cordon, the district's student nutrition director.
Cordon said the free meals program is a complete shift from a few years ago when students were being punished because they had owed money for school lunches.
Under federal rules, a family of four could earn no more than $34,060 a year to qualify for free school meals and snacks and no more than $48,470 for reduced-price meals.
"The standards for eligibility for free and reduced lunch leave a lot of children out," said Taylor. "Many children are growing up in poverty and relying on school meals for the predominance of their calories."
Taylor said schools and their large purchasing power can change the quality of agriculture in the state towards a more regenerative food system.
"Growers are very attuned to what consumers, what restaurants, what large institutional buyers are looking for," said Taylor.
"My hope for the future is that school meals for all is truly part of a movement and that it is starting here in California and that every kid at school can have healthy, sustainable, nutritious food and that it's students' favorite meal of the day," said LaTorre.