Young kids sit at long cafeteria tables, lunches splayed out in front of them.
Elementary school students eat lunch at the old Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

When kids return to school this month, all Berkeley students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of family income.

It’s the third year that Berkeley will offer free meals to all its students. The program started in the spring of 2020, when the school district began offering grab-and-go meals for students learning remotely.

Then in 2021, as students returned to the classroom, California became the first state to offer universal free meals. Borne out of a state budget surplus, the program has stuck around. Advocates say universal meals help reduce the stigma of free lunch and reach families in need who did not qualify under federal guidelines.

Last year, a quarter of students in Berkeley schools qualified for free or reduced lunch, though the number varies by school.

In 2010, Berkeley made school meals free for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch, concerned that families could not always afford it and citing reports that students are less likely to purchase the reduced-price meals toward the end of the month.

Families do not need to fill out an application for children to get free school meals, though filling out an application may qualify them for other benefits.

This summer, all children under 18 can pick up free meals at Berkeley Arts Magnet, Rosa Parks Elementary and Oxford Elementary. They do not need to be a BUSD student to be eligible. The program ends Aug. 11.

Visit the Berkeley Unified website for more information on the universal meals program.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...